Wednesday was our last 9 Whale Watch Charter day this week. What was most interesting is the differences between what we saw on the cruises…especially because we departed from the same locations and had very little time in between cruises. Guests joining us on our first Seasmoke Cruise got to see lots of spouts and flukes from pods of two adult Humpbacks. We also saw a few pectoral slaps, and a few peduncle throws happening from a pod of three whales. As we gazed out to the horizon, we also saw some huge splashes from breaching whales. Just one hour after we returned from that cruise, we departed again, and this time we saw so many close-up breaches that we actually lost count. We were watching a competitive pod of 5 adult humpbacks for the first hour of the cruise, and these whales came right up to our boat, swimming across our bow, diving and surfacing on all sides of the boat. We also saw a bunch of head lunges and tail lobs, and a couple of double pec slaps. After about an hour of non-stop activity, this pod took a deep dive, and either separated, or swam off fast and far, because we never saw them again (though we did see spouts, flukes, and plenty of other whales). After that incredibly exciting cruise, we went out again two hours later. This time, it took us awhile to even see a spout. But the whales found us, and we ended up watching 6 different pods of two adults, and towards the end of the cruise, got to see a Mom/Baby/Escort pod. To us, it appeared that baby was leading the adults around…since baby kept changing directions, followed by mom and the escort. They came pretty close to our boat, checking us out too. We actually got to watch baby lying on mom’s rostrum, and as mom swam, we got to watch the baby roll right up her head and onto her blowholes!
Captain Claire’s Humpback Fact of the Day: Researchers have observed that Humpback calves are very playful, investigating all kinds of objects in their environment (including our boat), interacting with their moms, and even interacting with passing pods of dolphins. But for as many calves as we see in Hawaii during the winter, we never have observed the calves playing with each other. Though we’re not sure why this is, perhaps the new moms won’t allow a calf not her own to approach, because she doesn’t want to feed the wrong one.
As predicted, the surf was HUGE on the west side of the island on Thursday, causing us to cancel all of our charters. Since the closer to shore you get, the more you feel the water movement, it made me wonder how the Humpbacks handle high surf days. Do they move out to sea to avoid the surge?
Throughout my career as a whale naturalist, I’ve been on lots of cruises where the swell has been up. Though I’ve never been officially involved in a study tracking the movement of the whales, I have noticed anecdotally that we have to go further from shore to find the Humpbacks on big surf days. But those observations aren’t scientifically valid ones.
So, I spent some time looking through published research to see if anyone else has observed and documented this correlation.
A scan of the literature didn’t help me much with this question…but I did find recently published research that found that calves are more likely to play around on the surface when it’s rough than when it’s calm (they may get excited by all the wave action and want to see what it feels like)…and that male calves surface without mom more frequently than female calves, and stay on the surface longer. Since surface play may help to build muscles and increase myoglobin (which helps with oxygen storage so the whales can go longer between breaths), these young males might actually be preparing themselves for the different social life they’ll live when they grow up.
I also found other recently published research where the researchers found that Humpbacks switched from primarily vocal to primarily surface generated communication (breaching/peduncle throwing etc) in rougher oceans — they posited that the sound from a big splash travels across greater frequencies and therefore might be more easily detected by other Humpbacks in a noisy environment.
I’m still searching for research about whether Humpbacks are affected by the surf…if you find anything, please send it my way!
Have a great weekend. I’ll send out our Weekend Recap on Monday.
We experienced some pretty breezy conditions on Monday, so we only were able to operate our two morning Whale Watch Cruises. Our naturalists are still reporting lots of spouts, but we’ve been noticing that the migration back to Alaska is in full swing. Generally the whales we see later in the season are pods of Mom/Baby/Escort, and lots of lone whales (who researchers are now identifying as alpha males that are optimizing mating opportunities before migrating north). We’re also seeing lots of competitive pods associating and disassociating as they battle to establish dominance among themselves. When we are able to deploy our hydrophone, we’re hearing a lot of singers too. We’ve always maintained that though it’s sad to say Aloha to our Humpbacks, the last three weeks of every season does bring some exciting surface action. Combine cute curious calves with an uneven ratio of males to females, and add in some desperate-to-mate male Humpbacks, and we get the recipe for incredible whale watches!
Captain Claire’s Humpback Fact of the Day: Starting out as a way to pass time between whale sightings and hunts on the whaling ships in the mid18th century, “scrimshawing” (or the art of carving intricate designs on to whale teeth, bones and baleen) survived until the ban on commercial whaling went into effect. The etched designs were originally produced by sailors using sailing needles, and were colored with candle soot and tobacco juice to bring the designs into view. Today, hobbyists still create scrimshaw — but they use bones and tusks from non-endangered and non-protected animal species like camels, buffalo and even warthogs.