Humpback Whales? Yes, in my backyard!

Adult of Humpback whale sighted on the 12th of September 2011. Copyright Sandra Caramelle - SWDF

In the light of recent events, the RSDP would better change its name in Red Sea Dolphin and Whale Project! Many of you already know that a pair of Humpback whales was spotted on the 12th of September 2011 in the waters off Hurghada by several daily boats. Pictures and videos were then shared on the web to make everybody enjoy this incredibly rare sighting (check out HEPCA’s facebook pages to see them!).

Commonly spotted all year round off Oman, sighting in the Gulf of Aden are limited and this fascinating creatures have been spotted in the Egyptian Red Sea only twice before (despite a very few not-confirmed sightings have been reported, two have been documented: a young individual off Dahab in 1992 and an adult in October 2006 off Sharm El Sheikh), making this recent sighting an incredible event indeed!

Megaptera novaeangliae, commonly known as Humpback Whale, Baleine à Bosse, Ballena Jorobada or Megattera, is a massive fascinating balenopterid.

Cosmopolitan species, it is known to occur in all major ocean basins (see image below, from www.iucnredlist.org) that the animals cross seasonally during the migration between feeding, mating and calving grounds. Studies revealed the existence of a resident year-round population inhabiting the water of the Arabian Sea, however the Red Sea seems not to be regularly visited by this species.

Humpback whale distribution. http://www.iucnredlist.org.

Easy recognizable by the body shape and the white patches on flukes and fins, its major distinctive feature are undoubtedly the unusually long pectoral fins. In fact the species’ name tells about its morphology: Megaptera stems from the Ancient Greek words for Big (mega) and wing (pteron), a clear reference to the enormous and characteristic pectoral fins, whose length can reach a third of the body length, while the species name novaeangliae is probably due to the frequent sightings recorded in New England at the time when the species was first described by Brisson (1765).

This balenopterid is a big cetacean, with adults ranging from 11 up to 16 m long and weighting approx 36 Tons (36,000 Kg) that, like all mysticetes, feeds on the tiniest prey: krill and small fish are caught with an innovative technique involving several animals swimming from the depth to the surface while creating a bubble net that has the effect of confining the prey. This is a cooperative efforts undertaken by some dozens individuals, some blowing bubbles, some pushing prey towards the surface, some vocalizing to herd them.

Aerial view of a bubble net off Cape Fanshaw, Alaska. J. Olson, NMFS/NOAA

Once entrapped in the net, it is easy for the Humpback Whales to surface with mouth agape and swallow as many prey as possible (see http://www.arkive.org/humpback-whale/megaptera-novaeangliae/video-08a.html). The baleen (from 40 cm to 1 m long) act then as a filter when the mouth content is subjected to a pressure towards to outside in order to drain the water taken in.

It is reported by some that Humpback Whales lifespan ranges from 40 to 100 years (perhaps more), with females reaching the sexual maturity at the age of five and breeding every two or three years. Newborns can look minute compared to the mother, but length at birth is 6m, the size of a van! The one between mother and calf is probably the only strong bond among individuals described for the species: in fact, sociality is not well developed and Humpback whales don’t present long-term strong associations nor organization in “pods”. Animals may gather, aggregations are observed in feeding and mating grounds for example, but this is only a transitory situation.  During courtship rituals, dozens of males join in the so called “competitive groups” and perform specific behavior vying for the same female. Vocalizations -“grunts”, “barks”, “groans”, etc –  might also play a role in attracting females, but their function seem to be more for general communication, for example to acoustically connect group migrating and ensure their coordination. Long-term Photo-identification studies have contributed to reveal most of these features and global databases are updated and consulted on a daily basis by research teams scattered all over the world: a simple picture of the fluke’s trailing edge which is unique and therefore identify a specific individuals, allows the researchers to follow an animal that migrate up to 25,000 Km every year.

Humpback whales display various aerial behaviors and are generally curious about the surroundings, therefore they became one of the favorite targets of whale watching operators. Conservation measures taken in the last decades seem to have successfully protected the species allowing recovery of some populations and alleviating the species’ conservation status to “Least Concern” in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, after years and years of “Vulnerable” and “Endangered” (more serious conservation status category).

It is hard to explain the reasons behind this rare encounter, science cannot do it…yet J. The important thing is that we keep in mind that those two individuals might be still roaming around, keep your eyes open and please inform us if you spot them again!

Another important thing: now that we know that the impossible can happen, try to get ready for the next impossible. Joy and excitement should not blind us completely: approaches and interactions with whales, especially with mother and calf pairs, must be handled with respect and delicacy, often the more we stay quiet, the more we can enjoy them. Have a quick look at these guidelines issued by the Australian Government (http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/species/cetaceans/whale-watching/index.html#guidelines ) and keep them in mind next time you run into a cetacean!

Last note: here in the Red Sea, we are blessed with numerous species of dolphins regularly spotted during our daily activities at sea. This is a treasure we should not undermine with our own hands: check out HEPCA suggested dolphin watching and swimming-with guidelines. Respect them and make them respected!

Madda (HEPCA Team)

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One Response to Humpback Whales? Yes, in my backyard!

  1. Domino says:

    Thank you for this informative post! I saw the pictures on facebook … they are amazing!

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