On Humpback Whales and Other Astonishing Creatures
– Excerpts edited from a lecture delivered by Dr. Fred Sharp of the Alaska Whale Foundation
Whale watching itself is often non eventful, essentially scanning the horizon waiting to see the megafauna breathe. We were lucky enough to spot whales on several occasions, and on our penultimate day we saw some flipper smacking and two breaching whales. The sheer scale of the creatures intrigues us, drawing attention to the mysterious expanse of the world under the water. Like an iceberg, only 10% of their lives pierce our atmosphere. 90% of the time they are underwater, diving for up to 35 minutes before coming up to breathe.
While aboardship, keep your eyes on the water! During the voyage you may see whales at any time, though naturalists also radio ahead to other ships and friends on the ground to help to steer us towards sightings. Even when whales are spotted, most of the time the bulk of the whale is below the waterline, which adds to their lure and mythology. The Latin name for the Humpback Whale is Megaptera Novanglicae (sp), translating literally to “Big Wings.” Their huge flippers are used for hunting, defense, temperature regulation, and perhaps more. The flippers feature vestigial bones from the whales’ history of land life. According to Dr. Sharp, “Humpback whales have the largest middle finger in the known universe.”
Our expedition is miniscule in comparison to those of the whales. Humpbacks have an enormous migratory range, with several distinct populations. The whales in Southeast Alaska feed near the north pole and travels to Hawaii to birth calves, fasting for the 4 months during the journey in between! Humpbacks do not lack for company on this trip. They travel in social groups called pods, and for portions of this trip they are accompanied by other species such as dolphins, porpoises, and sea lions, who appear to engage in play behaviors with Humpbacks. Researchers are fascinated by the whales’ evolution of complex social hunting tactics.
Today it is widely known that Humpbacks sing. However, as little as 50 years ago, their voice boxes were unknown to scientists – in spite of the longer history of hunting and harvesting whale carcasses! Today, we know that theses filter feeders sing to hunt, using flippers, vocalizations and bubble nets to generate noise,. The whales’ preferred prey, the Pacific Herring, has very sensitive hearing, and the whales work in strategic teams to generate waves of sound. Each whale in the group will have a particular role, then the group uses sound waves to compress the prey into a concentrated area. This social fish herding behavior is essential to condense the small prey so that they can be efficiently gulped mouthfuls at a time. Once the fish are concentrated, the whales will all surface together with open mouths, then close their mouths to push the water out, retaining any remaining sea life behind their baleen and licking their “teeth” clean.
Because this feeding behavior is highly choreographed and social, when one pod of Humpbacks meets another and joins together, raucous and busy vocalization is heard. Essentially, before the whales hunt together or try a new approach, the coach needs to coordinate the play. As a result, it is theorized that the vocalizations may be a language. In addition, Pacific and Atlantic populations of Humpbacks have distinctly different vocabularies and cultural patterns of behavior.
Through scientific analysis of beached whale carcasses and remnants from permitted indigenous culls, cetacean biologists have determined that in comparison to humans, Humpbacks have a much higher density of spindle neurons in the brain. Spindle neurons are thick, dense neurons, responsible for tasks such as social empathy, facial recognition, language, and compassion. Not only do Humpbacks feature a wide range of vocalizations and strong mother-calf bonding, but they also demonstrate compassion for other species. They have been observed playing actively with dolphins and porpoises for a half hour or more, giving them rides on snouts or backs until the dolphin tires. When orcas hunt seals, Humpbacks on the scene have been observed swimming to the surface and remaining there to shelter distressed seals underneath their flippers. In addition, since the suspension of human hunting practices, with the resurgence of the Humpback population, on a few occasions Humpbacks have come to the assistance of human swimmers in distress, lifting them to the surface so that they can breathe. Humpback whales can live as long as 90 years.
A pod of orcas followed the ship for a bit; we also saw several harbor porpoises. Sea lions show a LOT of surface time compared to whales!
We have only just pierced the surface of the whale behaviors – and I personally am intensely curious as to whether any cetacean biologists will develop a dictionary similar to research by Joyce Poole into elephant communication (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/08/elephants-language-communication-translate-emotions-spd/). It certainly raises questions about animal sentience and cognition, as well as an interesting study in potential social organizational forms. Now that the species is protected from hunting perhaps we will be able to learn more.
Much of this information is the result of sustained research efforts from the Alaska Whale Foundation. If you would like to support their efforts please find more information on their website: