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.
Guests aboard our 10:00 Whale Watch on Alala had an interesting experience on Tuesday. Just as we left the harbor, we found a pod of Spinner Dolphins, which is always fun…but we continued south and found a Humpback calf at the surface. The calf approached the boat and actually started rubbing up against our hulls! It looked like he was scratching some itchy skin on his sides and on his back, and as we got a better and better look at him, we noticed a chunk missing from his dorsal fin, and all sorts of other scratches on his body. Our on-board naturalist Mike had just finished telling everyone about the importance of the relationship between baby and Mom…and when Mom didn’t surface for awhile, we started to get worried. This little calf stayed right alongside the boat for 20, then 30, then 35 minutes…and just when we were all about to cry, thinking the baby had been abandoned (and also about to call the folks at the Hawaii Islands Humpback National Marine Sanctuary to report the situation), Mom surfaced and led our little friend away! A very happy ending to a very interesting whale watch.
Captain Claire’s Humpback Whale Fact of the Day: According to research reported by the Keiki Kohola Project, the most common surface behavior observed of calves is “twirling” thru 360 degrees at the surface. These twirls often incorporate pec slaps and waves, and tail slaps and swishes. The researchers theorize all this movement not only helps the calves to improve their coordination, but also helps with the production of the intra-muscular oxygen-storing protein called myoglobin, allowing these calves the ability to stay underwater for increased amounts of time without breathing.
We were happy to be back on the water on Thursday, and we think the whales were happy to see us too! On our 10:00 Whale Watch from Kawaihae, we saw 15 whales and 5 breaches. One of those breaches was actually a double breach — Mom and baby coming out of the water at the same time. We also saw two other Cow/Calf pods, but the highlight of this trip was definitely the singing. At one point, the singing whale was so close that we were able to hear him in the cabin without the hydrophone! Of course when we did deploy the hydrophone the singing was very LOUD and very clear. On our 3:00 Whales and Cocktails cruise from Anaeho’omalu, we saw a breach right outside the bay — we had the hydrophone in the water at that point so not only did we get to see it, we got to hear what the whales must hear when one of their buddies lands — it was really incredible. We were also quite the object of curiosity for a calf — the cute little guy kept trying to approach us, but Mom did her job and kept pushing him away. Angelica, our naturalist aboard that trip reports that they saw so many whales in every direction she couldn’t even keep count of them.
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Humpback Whale Fact of the Day: According to research reported by the Keiki Kohola project, very young calves (identified by the extent to which their fins are still furled from their time in utero) are much more active than older calves, swimming and twirling and kicking. These researchers theorize that all that exercise leads to the production of a necessary oxygen storing protein called “myoglobin” (pronounced “my-oh-globe-in) in the whales’ muscles. One of the reasons adult humpbacks can hold their breath for 45 minutes is that they can store so much oxygen in their muscles, and baby is training to be able to do that too.
Have a great weekend…I’ll be sending the next report on Monday,