Kayak Tours and Humpback Whales
INFORMATION ABOUT HUMPBACK WHALES
Mating and Migration
Humpback whales can be found in almost any ocean water across the globe but the whales you will see off of Vancouver Island divide their time between two places, north and south. These whales spend their summers in the Northern Pacific, in waters from British Columbia to the Gulf of Alaska, and their winters in the Southern Pacific, in waters off the Baja Peninsula and across toward the Hawaiian Islands.
During their summers, up north, the whales feed of krill, plankton and small fish to fatten up for the winter. During the winters, down south, the whales will fast, living off their fat reserves while mating or giving birth. Over the course of a year, the whales will travel up to 25,000 kilometers. While they usually travel in small groups, humpback pods have been discovered that numbered over 200 strong.
Humpbacks mate on their tropical winter vacations to the south. They will mate approximately every two years once they reach sexual maturity, which is at the age of 5 for females and 7 for males. Their mating tendencies continue to be studied, but it is thought that males will try and show off for the females. A group of up to 20 males may surround one female and compete for attention by breaching or “singing.” The female will select her mate and will give birth to a calf after a one-year gestation period. They will give birth in the same southern waters where they mate.
The newborn humpback calf is roughly the length of the mother’s head, about 5 feet long. The newborn also weighs approximately 2 tons. The newborn will remain with its mother for at least a year. The mother nurses for the first six months and then helps the calf to sustain itself for the next six months. After a year has passed since the birth, the mother will be ready to mate again.
The Whale Song
An incredible trait of humpback whales is that they can “sing.” Research has found that male humpbacks sing one long and complex song that lasts up to 20 minutes long. There are essentially two whale songs. One is sung by male humpbacks of the Pacific while the other is sung by those of the Atlantic. Within their oceans, the whales stick to singing the same some repeatedly. The note of the song will change over time by the tune remains strikingly similar between whales. The whales have been recorded to sing for up to 24 hours at once, constantly repeating the whale song. Researchers think the song is most likely involved in some sort of mating ritual but they become confused because other males often respond to the song. This has led people to believe that the song could be being used for some other purpose such as echolation.
Population and Threats to Humpback Whales
For at least 200 years, the population of humpback whales has been directly affected by human behavior, specifically commercial whaling practices. The first recorded attempt to hunt the humpback was made off the coast of Maine by John Smith in 1614. It was another hundred years before the economic value of commercial whaling was recognized in the 18 th century, and the humpbacks have been at the mercy of human hunters ever since.
In the 19 th century, the explosive harpoon was invented which drastically increased the take of humpback whales. It is estimated that over 250,000 whales where killed for commercial purposes in the 20 th century. The population in the North Atlantic Ocean dropped to under 1,000 whales. In 1966, with 250,000 recorded humpback kills, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) introduced a moratorium on humpback hunting. The true number of humpbacks killed up to that year is very uncertain, as some countries had under-reported their take.
Since the 1966 moratorium, the humpback population for the most part has flourished. There is still some hunting allowed but it is limited to a small area of the Caribbean Island of Bequia. (This is where the world’s largest recorded humpback was killed. 88 feet long and weighing 90 tons.) The hunting off Bequia is most likely not a threat to the whale’s global population. Humpbacks today are more threatened by pollution of the world’s oceans. This pollution generally comes in two forms, Saxitoxin and noise. Saxotoxin is a PSP(Paralytic Shellfish Poison) that can contaminate the humpback’s food source. Noise pollution is also known to have killed whales, whose ears are highly sensitive; oceanic sub-bottom blasting has caused humpback deaths.
A recent threat to the humpback population came in November of 2007 when Japan announced their intent to kill 50 humpbacks a year in the South Pacific as part of their JARPA-II research program. The announcement triggered global protests, as the program would not only threaten the approximately 2,000 humpbacks that live in that region but it would also affect a healthy Australian Whale-Watching industry. Because of the backlash to their original announcement, the Japanese government announced on December 21 that they would cancel their plans to hunt the humpbacks.
As mentioned earlier, despite remaining threats, the humpback population has flourished since the 1966 moratorium on whaling practices. Humpbacks can be seen in most of the world’s oceans, and ambitious estimates of their global population have been recorded at over 70,000. (More modest estimates maintain that their population could be as low as 20,000.) In either case, it is likely that around 7,000 humpbacks inhabit the Northern Pacific today.