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For the Love of Humpback Whales

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In the intelligent-design documentary Living Waters, Illustra Media offers beautiful footage of humpback whales from above and below the ocean surface, heaving their massive bulk into the air, coming down with a mighty splash. Even more wondrous, though, is the design of these mammals that are perfectly adapted to full-time aquatic life, though they breathe air, lactate and give birth to live young like other mammals.

The film only had time to treat a couple of specific design aspects of whales, such as their complex vocal communications and the internal testes of the males — traits that defy explanations based on gradual Darwinian evolution. There’s much more to tell.

Humpbacks have been a lot in the news since August and November of last year. Before going further, take a minute to watch a new drone video posted by National Geographic showing “The Rare Beauty of Dozens of Migrating Humpback Whales.” Then look at 21 art-quality photos of the whales in a gallery on the same page. They are truly amazing creatures, larger than any dinosaur that ever lived.

Flipper Phone and Breaches of Etiquette

You may remember the film’s discussion about humpback whale singing, butNew Scientistshares a new twist in their communication.

It’s something all whale-watchers yearn to see. The sight of whales breaking the surface and slapping their fins on the water is a true spectacle — but the animals don’t do it just for show.

Instead, it appears that all that splashing is about messaging other whales, and the big splashes are for long-distance calls. [Emphasis added.]

Researchers from the University of Queensland followed 94 different groups of humpbacks during their annual migration. They found that breaching was more frequent when another pod was more than four kilometers away, but fin-slapping was more common when other whales were coming or leaving the pod. They also seemed to be doing it more often in windy conditions, perhaps because the conditions made vocalizations less audible. It may be that the whales aren’t just engaging in these energy-intensive behaviors for fun or to dislodge parasites; they could be texting messages over the waves.

Mugging for the Camera

Live Science posts a short article showing humpbacks “mugging” for tour boats, seeking attention, indicating their social intelligence and curiosity. Sometimes a whale will lift one eye out of the water as if to get a better look. The article lists some of the superlatives of humpback whales:

  • They can grow as long as 60 feet (18 meters) in length.

  • They migrate farther than any other mammal.

  • Than can eat up to 3,000 pounds of food a day.

These don’t sound quite like traits that could be inherited from a wolf- or cow-like ancestor.

Again, watch the short video clip in the article taken from a drone. The whales dwarf the tour boat. Undoubtedly the tourists were glad they were not surrounded by great white sharks.

Conservation Success

Whale sightings have increased off the coast of New York and New Jersey in recent years. Last month, a humpback was spotted miles up the Hudson River. In the past, marine biologists took this as a sign of distress, since they are usually not found there. This time, Phys.org says, they think the cleaner water due to conservation efforts is allowing more fish to thrive, enticing the beasts to swim in closer to New York City. In addition to humpbacks, New Yorkers have seen endangered right whales making rare appearances.

Population Boom

Before whaling was banned in 1965, humpbacks in the North Pacific dropped from an estimated 15,000 individuals to less than a thousand, Science Daily says. After they were further protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1973, their numbers began to climb. Now, there are about 21,000 individuals frolicking in the area. “The recovery has been slow, in part because humpback whales can live to be 70 years of age and their recovery is driven primarily by local fidelity and recruitment.”

What do they mean by “local fidelity and recruitment”? A paper in Endangered Species Research explains. Oregon State marine biologists have determined that most individuals they observed in Glacier Bay are either the same individuals that were present decades ago, or their descendants. This implies that individuals remember their favorite feeding grounds. Outsiders do not often stumble in to an area. Instead, the knowledge of where to go is primarily inherited. This has important implications for conservation efforts.

How can scientists identify specific whales? Science Daily says that the markings on humpbacks are unique to each individual. “Each individual whale has a tail, or fluke, as unique as a fingerprint,” National Geographic adds. “No two flukes are alike, which makes the whales easy to track.”

Conservation Challenges

Despite these successes, all is not well. BBC News posted a worrying video clip of a humpback whale calf caught in shark nets off the coast of Australia. Its mother kept pushing it up so it could breathe. Fortunately, a rescue team saw the predicament and moved in to cut away the nets; mother and calf swam away calmly.

Entanglement in fishing gear has been a longtime concern of Captain Dave Anderson, who appears in Living Waters. “Nearly 1,000 dolphins and whales die every day due to fishing gear entanglement,” his Whale Rescue page says. The page includes a video clip of his team going to great efforts day and night to approach entangled animals and cut away the ropes and nets that endanger their lives. Sometimes a freed whale will come near the boats afterward as if to say “Thank you.”

Solving the problem of entanglement will require cooperation between marine biologists, governments and fishing companies. Science Daily reports on the magnitude of the problem:

Left-behind fishing gear that continues to catch — sometimes called ghost fishing — entraps sea life from the world’s largest animal, the blue whale, to the critically endangered small tooth sawfish, according to a new study.

“Entanglement is the likely cause of death for many marine organisms, particularly whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sharks, turtles and rays,” lead author Martin Stelfox told Seeker. Stelfox is the founder and director of the Oliver Ridley Project, which is working to combat derelict nets and other equipment that continue to fish in the Indian Ocean. The problem occurs worldwide, however.

After compiling a list of losses, the researchers found that “Humpback whales were the most commonly caught animals, followed closely by the North Atlantic right whale.” One promising trend is to make fishing gear out of biodegradable material, but fishermen need to be educated on the risk to these magnificent animals and learn to retrieve their nets and deposit them in designated collection points. We can each help by reducing plastic pollution that reaches the ocean, and by keeping mylar helium balloons from floating out to sea, where they are mistaken for food by whales, dolphins, and sea turtles.

Enjoy Humpbacks Up Close

If you are ever in Southern California, be sure to book a trip with Captain Dave Anderson’s Whale and Dolphin Safari. He runs trips all year off Dana Point, which he calls the “Serengeti” of marine mammals. His trips have sighted humpbacks for most of the last few days.

Image credit: Illustra Media.