Saturday, 20 March 2021

HUMPBACK WHALES: MEGAPTERA NOVAENGLIAE

Humpback Whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, are a species of baleen whale. These are whales who feed on plankton and other wee oceanic tasties that they consume through their baleens, a specialised filter of keratin that frames their mouths.

There are 15 species of baleen whales. They inhabit all major oceans, in a wide band running from the Antarctic ice edge to 81°N latitude.

Humpback whales are rorquals, members of the Balaenopteridae family that includes the blue, fin, Bryde's, sei and minke whales. The rorquals are believed to have diverged from the other families of the suborder Mysticeti during the middle Miocene. While cetaceans were historically thought to have descended from mesonychids— which would place them outside the order Artiodactyla— molecular evidence supports them as a clade of even-toed ungulates — our dear Artiodactyla. Baleen whales split from toothed whales, the Odontoceti, around 34 million years ago.

It is one of the larger rorqual species, with adults ranging in length from 12–16 m (39–52 ft) and weighing around 25–30 metric tons (28–33 short tons). The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with long pectoral fins and a knobbly head. It is known for breaching and other distinctive surface behaviours, making it popular with whale watchers.

Both male and female humpback whales vocalize, but only males produce the long, loud, complex "song" for which the species is famous. Males produce a complex soulful song lasting 10 to 20 minutes, which they repeat for hours at a time. I imagine Gregorian Monks vocalizing their chant with each individual melody strengthening and complimenting that of their peers. All the males in a group produce the same song, which differed in each season. Its purpose is not clear, though it may help induce estrus in females and bonding amongst the males.

Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Found in oceans and seas around the world, humpback whales typically migrate up to 25,000 km (16,000 mi) each year. They feed in polar waters and migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed and give birth, fasting and living off their fat reserves. Their diet consists mostly of krill and small fish. Humpbacks have a diverse repertoire of feeding methods, including the bubble net technique.

Humpbacks are a friendly species that interact with other cetaceans such as bottlenose dolphins. They are also friendly and oddly protective of humans. You may recall hearing about an incident off the Cook Islands a few years back. In September of 2017, Nan Hauser was snorkelling and ran into a tiger shark. Two adult humpback whales rushed to her aid, blocking the shark from reaching her and pushing her back towards the shore. We could learn a thing or two from their kindness. We have not been as good to them as they have been to us.

Like other large whales, the humpback was a tasty and profitable target for the whaling industry. My grandfather and uncle participated in that industry out of Coal Harbour on northern Vancouver Island back in the 1950s. Six whaling stations operated on the coast of British Columbia between 1905 and 1976. Two of these stations were located in the Queen Charlotte Islands, one at Rose Harbour and the other at Naden Harbour. Over 9,400 large whales were taken from the waters around the Queen Charlotte Islands. The catch included blue whales, fin whales, sei whales, humpback whales, sperm whales and right whales. In the early years of the century, primarily humpback whales were taken. In later years, fin whales and sperm whales dominated the catch. 

Whales were hunted off South Moresby in Haida Gwaii, on the north side of Holberg Inlet in the Quatsino Sound region. It was the norm at the time and a way to make a living, especially for those who had hoped to work in the local coal mine but lost their employment when it shut down. 

My relatives participated in the hunt that nearly led to the extinction of our lovely Humpbacks before the process was banned back in the 1960s. The Coal Harbour Whaling Station closed in 1967. My grandfather Einar took to fishing and my uncle Harry lost his life when he slipped and fell over the side of the boat. He was crushed between the hull and a Humpback in rough seas. 

Humpback populations have partially recovered to build their population up to 80,000 animals worldwide since the 1960s but entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and noise pollution continue to negatively impact the species. So be kind if you see them. Turn your engine off and see if you can hear their soulful cries echoing in the water.

I did up a video on Humpback Whales over on YouTube so you could see them in all their majesty. Here is the link: https://youtu.be/_Vbta7kQNoM