Educational Background on Whales:
Whales are one of the most amazing creatures that live in the planet. They inhabit all oceans of the world. Whales belong to the order cetacea, which means that they are mammals fully adapted to aquatic life. Like all cetaceans, including dolphins and porpoises, whales are descendants of land-living animals which returned to water after living millions of years in land. Most whales can grow to be extremely large. In fact, the Blue whale is considered to be the largest animal in the world. Whales are closely related to dolphins and porpoises. There are two types of whales that are identified by scientists, baleen whales and toothed whales, having each of these categories many sub species. You can easily identify which category a whale belongs based on its feeding and physical characteristics.
One startling fact: The most dangerous predators for whales are humans. They aren’t bothered by any other creatures in the water. However, the changes to their food source, hunting by humans, and even pollution to the waters that they live in can affect their abilities to survive which is why they continue to try to adapt to the environment that they are in.
Background Information on My Favorite Bostonian Cetaceans
NORTH ATLANTIC RIGHT WHALE (Eubalaena glacialis):
The North Atlantic right whale is currently one of the rarest large whales in the world, having been drastically reduced to critically low numbers by years of exploitation. Its robust, somewhat rotund, body is mostly black, with a large head that measures up to one third of the total body length. Some individuals may also bear white patches on the underside, while others have a more mottled appearance. More often, the only conspicuous feature of this great whale are the irregular patches of thickened tissue, called callosities, on the head. These callosities are inhabited by many small amphipods, known as cyamids or whale lice, and form a pattern unique to each individual whale, thus providing a means of identification.
The North Atlantic right whale lacks a dorsal fin, but has large, paddle-like pectoral fins used for steering, and an enormous tail that provides propulsion with powerful vertical strokes. The downward-curved mouth of the North Atlantic right whale contains between 200 and 270 baleen plates on each side of the upper jaw. These plates, each measuring around two meters long and fringed with fine hairs, replace teeth in Balaenidae whales, and are central to their method of feeding. The North Atlantic right whale has two blowholes situated on top of its head through which it breathes, producing a distinctive, bushy, v-shaped cloud of spray when it exhales at the surface.
10 Fun Facts about North Atlantic right whales:
Did you know?
1. The right whale’s scientific name, Eubalaena glacialis, means “good, or true, whale of the ice.”
2. Distribution pattern – mostly found along the Atlantic Coast of North America. Now believed to only survive on the east coast of the North America and Canada.
3. Scientists recognize individual whales based on their pattern of callosities – the white patches of rough skin that give right whales their characteristic appearance.
4. The NARW usually do not fear boats and can be easily approached by boats in the water. In result, this is one of the main reasons the NARW is endangered because they become involved in ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.
5. It is estimated that North Atlantic right whales live up to 67 years.
6. They were named ‘right’ whale by fisherman, because they thought it was the right whale to hunt, as they swim close to the shore, float when killed and 40 % of their body is blubber. In other words, their slower pace, the fact that they come close to land, their tendency to float after being killed and their “productivity” in terms of oil made them lucrative animals to target.
7. Baleen whales feed with their baleen; they ‘skim’ the water with their mouth open. Water and prey come into the mouth of the whale, but only the water can pass through, leaving prey like zooplankton, krill, and little shrimps behind.
8. A young / baby of a northern right whale is called a ‘calf’. The females are called ‘cow’ and males ‘bull’. A northern right whale group is called a ‘gam, pod or herd’.
9. Average weight of adult – 50,600 lbs.
10. There are about 300 Atlantic Northern right whales living today, almost all in the western North Atlantic, and are endangered species. The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered of all large whales, with a long history of human exploitation and no signs of recovery despite protection from whaling since the 1930s. Between 300 and 350 individuals still exist, but despite seven decades of protection efforts, no population growth has been observed.
I had been eagerly awaiting the presence of the North Atlantic right whale for 4 months during my time in the Massachusetts Bay – “The Humpback Whales in the Sunset; a Mission for Marine Mammal Preservation.” My last month for the project was in December and I still had yet to see this magnificent creature. I heard of one other boat working on the prospect that had briefly seen the North Atlantic right whale. Our rotation was soon coming to an end, but I was determined to not give hope of seeing the critically endangered species. I will never forget the afternoon when I finally laid eyes on the whale that I was searching for the entire last half of the year. It was your typical hot afternoon with a splash of strong sun glare rested on the water. I was talking to Kyle and Whitney (more about them in next post) right after lunch outside on the port bridge wing. All of a sudden the three glance at the water immediately because something had caught each of our eye’s. To our surprise we observe a large splash! The girls and I quickly skimmed the water and discovered a peculiar shape in the water. Distinctive characteristic that we perceived were the lack of dorsal fin on this whale and the “V” shaped blow. We had begun scratching our heads. What was this whale and why is it so unique? Almost immediately it hit us, we were staring at the North Atlantic right whale! Unfortunately, it was a quick sighting and there were no photographs taken. Definitely a remarkable day in the beginning of my long-term career!
Cool fact: In 2007 and 2009, the US government changed shipping routes out of Boston in an attempt to reduce collision. NOAA estimates that implementing an “Area to Be Avoided” and narrowing the “Traffic Separation Scheme” by one nautical mile will reduce the relative risk of right whale ship strikes by 74% from April to July! While NOAA was changing their shipping routes, I was studying the North Atlantic right whale’s migration route. Some of our data was used to determine the effectiveness of the newer implementation of the shipping route. As a result of the population dynamics of the North Atlantic Right Whale, I would say that it was a success!
HUMPBACK WHALE (Megaptera novaeangliae):
Humpback whales are known for their magical songs, which travel for great distances through the world’s oceans. These sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises are quite complex and often continue for hours on end. Scientists are studying these sounds to decipher their meaning. It is most likely that humpbacks sing to communicate with others and to attract potential mates. These whales are found near coastlines, feeding on tiny shrimp-like krill, plankton, and small fish. Humpbacks migrate annually from summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the Equator. Mothers and their young swim close together, often touching one another with their flippers with what appear to be gestures of affection. Females nurse their calves for almost a year, though it takes far longer than that for a humpback whale to reach full adulthood. Calves do not stop growing until they are ten years old.
Humpbacks are powerful swimmers, and they use their massive tail fin, called a fluke, to propel themselves through the water and sometimes completely out of it. These whales, like others, regularly leap from the water, landing with a tremendous splash. Scientists aren’t sure if this breaching behavior serves some purpose, such as cleaning pests from the whale’s skin, or whether whales simply do it for fun.
What is a humpback whale? The Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is the fifth largest of the great whales. Their scientific name comes from the Greek word ‘mega’ meaning ‘great’ and ‘pteron’ meaning ‘a wing’, because of their large front flippers that can reach a length of 5 meters, about one-third of their entire body length! They are named humpbacks because of the distinct ‘hump’ that shows as the whale arches its back when it dives.
What do they look like? Humpbacks are ‘rorquals’, whales which have distinctive throat grooves. They also have knobs on their heads known as ‘tubercles’, each of which has a long coarse hair growing from its centre which is believed to act as a sensor. They have very long flippers (more correctly known as ‘pectoral fins’) with knobs on the front edge, and a humped dorsal fin. They are blackish, with white undersides and sides. The underside of the tail fluke is usually white with black patterning, which is unique to each humpback, like a fingerprint, so can be used to identify individual whales! Males average 14.6 meters and females 15.2 meters long. The maximum length is 18 meters and a mature adult may weigh up to 45 tons. Humpback whales have a life expectancy of 45 to 50 years.
Where do they live? Humpback whales are found in all of the world’s oceans, although they generally prefer near-shore and near-island habitats for both feeding and breeding. From June to July the Australian humpback whales migrate northwards to their tropical calving grounds in the Kimberley and between September and November they begin travelling south to their feeding grounds in Antarctic. During their southerly migration you can sometimes see these beautiful animals from the shore, as they pass along the WA coast including through the proposed Dampier Archipelago Marine Park, the Montebello Islands Marine Park, Ningaloo Marine Park, Shark Bay Marine Park, Jurien Bay Marine Park, Marmion Marine Park and the proposed Ngari Capes Marine Park (which will protect the waters between Busselton and Augusta). As they are often accompanied by their calves on the southern migration, they tend to stay much closer to shore than they do when heading north.
How are they identified? Humpbacks are solely identified by the markings on the flukes – Researchers have discovered that individual Humpbacks can be identified by the black and white patterns on the underside of their flukes, similar to fingerprints for humans. Researchers take pictures called fluke ID’s and compare them to ones taken before; this helps them determine the Humpback’s distribution pattern. Humpbacks have five basic types of whale flukes: Mostly white, 25% white, half white and half black, 25% black, and last mostly black. Often one can eliminate three types, and look through only two types. Sometimes one has to look through three types, especially if not 100% of the fluke can be seen. Sounds like a difficult process!
What do they eat and how? Humpbacks are ‘baleen’ whales, so instead of teeth they have 270-400 baleen plates which hang from the top jaw. They feed by taking big gulps of water and filtering shrimp-like krill and small fish between these plates. An average-sized Humpback Whale will eat 4,400-5,500 pounds (2000-2500 kg) of plankton, krill and small, schooling fish each day during the feeding season in cold waters (about 120 days). They eat twice a day. Humpbacks cooperate in hunting and have developed a method of rounding up highly concentrated masses of prey that is called “bubble netting.” The hunting members of a pod form a circle 10-100 feet (3.1-31 m) across and about 50 feet (15 m) under the water. Then the humpbacks blow a wall of bubbles as they swim to the surface in a spiral path. The cylindrical wall of bubbles makes the trapped krill, plankton, and/or small fish move to the surface of the water in a giant, concentrated mass.
Do they sleep? All whales sleep and they stay at the top of the water, with their blowhole above the surface. In order to make sure that whales perform the basic functions to breathe, only one half of their brain will sleep at a time. This is the only way that they are able to get the amount of rest that they need and still take care of this function that is necessary for their bodies to survive.
Besides humans, what are their other threats? Humpbacks can live up to 45-50 years. In the past, Humpback Whales were heavily exploited by commercial whalers all around the world, hunted for their oil, meat and whalebone. Hunting was banned in 1963 after the species became nearly extinct. In 2007, the Japanese proposed to resume killing the humpback for so-called ‘scientific purposes’, but gave them a last-minute reprieve. Other threats to humpback whales include them ingesting plastic, which accumulates in their gut and leads to a slow death, and becoming entangled in crayfish lines and pots. Supported by the Department of Environment and Conservation, the Western Rock Lobster Council has introduced a Code of Practice to help reduce whale entanglements. Natural predators include killer whales which prey on the young humpback calves.
What is their behavior? Humpbacks travel in groups known as “pods”. When in a playful mood, they may put on spectacular displays of breaching, rolling, spyhopping, slapping their pectoral fins and generally having a ‘whale’ of a time. During the breeding season, the humpback males are known for singing the longest and most complex songs in the animal kingdom. An adult humpback’s two lungs, each the size of a small car, are emptied and refilled in less than two seconds. As it surfaces, the humpback exhales through two blowholes on the top of its head. The air is expelled and cooled so rapidly that it forms a distinctive cloud, which is often mistaken for water! Why do Humpbacks breach? For humpback the purpose for this exciting display of power is not completely understood, but has been suggested to be a way to lose parasites, communicate long distances, or simply play. Orcas tend to use This behavior has been suggested to be a form of long range communication with other whales, a display of dominance, a way to observe above the water, and just for fun – herding and concentrating feed.
What is their conservation status? Humpback whales are threatened and they are specially protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act. It is estimated there are over 10,000-15,000 Humpbacks world-wide; however, they are indicated as an endangered species.
How you can protect the Humpback Whale? Follow the whale watchers code. Boats should not approach closer than 100 meters to a whale, a vessel should not separate a group or mother and calf and, if you are in the water and a whale approaches, you must stay at least 30 meters from the whale. If you should spot a whale entangled in rope or fishing gear call the Department of Environment and Conservation so the department’s special whale and dolphin disentanglement team can help the animal.
The Ultimate Experience with a Humpback Whale and her Calf:
Once the end of the Boston project approached, I successfully identified and witnessed 375 Humpback whales. I had a lot of great moments with Humpbacks, but my ultimate favorite happened on an early evening in December 2007. I had just finished eating dinner and was walking directly outside to watch the sunset over Boston. I had begun skimming the water for any signs of whales and/or dolphins in the immediate area. I must have been looking about 1 kilometer from the boat off the port side, when all of a sudden I felt a cold gush of water splash me in the face! Immediately shocked and startled, I glanced down to see a whale and its eyes looking right at me! Not just any whale, this was a Humpback whale with her calf! I must have stared at her right in the eye for a solid 5 minutes; she was only a few feet from the bottom of the boat! The massive size of her flippers, her white patched fluke, and the size of her dorsal fin all caught my eye! I remember thinking how gorgeous this mammal was and how amazing it was to see her and her calf so up-close and within my personal view! I could never put this moment into words (I tried dozens of times), but the adrenaline that overcame my body and the sheer excitement that I felt when first saw the Humpback’s eye looking at me was absolutely INCREDIBLE! Not to mention the goose-bumps that rose all over my body, my heart pounding violently out of my chest, and my eyes in awe of such a majestic creature will forever live on in my memory of that fantastic night!
*All North Atlantic right whale photographs are taken by various National Geographic Biologists. In addition, all Humpback photographs are provided by a respectable colleague, friend, and biologist Juliet Shrimpton.