Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W6

February 28 ~ March 7, 2015

Within every group of organisms, from the tiniest to the largest, there is variation. In our own species, we find variation is obvious: we quickly discern blue eyes from brown, or an outgoing personality from a more shy one (though other variation, such as susceptibility to disease, is less obvious, even in those closest to us). Although we are less adept at recognizing variation in other species, subtle or otherwise, it is there.  Humpbacks have visible variation in color patterning, shape, size, and behavior, among other things. A week on the Silver Bank provides a great deal of intimate interaction with these fascinating creatures, making it clear that each is as unique in appearance and personality as we are.

©Kai Matthes

©Kai Matthes

For this reason, one encounter this week particularly stands out: a mother and calf pair escorted by a male with a very unusual facial feature. Like a sockeye salmon (from whence he was given the name “Sockeye”), this whale has a shortened face, a pronounced underbite and a protruding hooked lower lip. Nature is generally unkind to individuals with extreme anomalies, but Sockeye has managed to compensate well for his awkward facial structure and deformed baleen. Seen intermittently since 1984, Sockeye has appeared this year fit, fat, and feisty, and apparently well in command of the female he is seen defending. While his dorsal fin and tubercles are bloody from battle with challengers, he is gentle but firm with us. During several “fly-bys” with the trio, mother and calf roll by coquettishly, while Sockeye rises up towards and just underneath us. A subtle warning, but one that is clearly acknowledged. He also makes several passes directly next to the tender, his forceful trumpet-like exhalations another signal that this mother and calf are his and his alone. We are happy to give him his space, and happy too to see he is doing so well.

© Kai Matthes

© Kai Matthes

Other encounters this week nicely demonstrates variation in color patterning that we see on North Atlantic humpbacks: lots of exceptional surface activity gives us ample opportunity to see flukes, fins, and bellies. Some humpbacks have a great deal of white on the underside of their fluke fin (tail), others have black. Indeed, every imaginable fluke pattern from all-white to all-black is seen in humpbacks, and these variations are the “fingerprint” used by scientists to identify individuals. One active whale breached, lobtailed and rolled over and over for us, clearly showing his interesting fluke patterning, with a white patch reminiscent of a bird in flight at center.

© Kai Matthes

© Kai Matthes

Variation in behavior was also evident this week: in contrast to Sockeye’s defensiveness, other female and escort pairs (and female, calf and escort trios) were happy to relax with us. Escorts sometimes get a reputation for acting possessive, but many are just as interested in us as the females they accompany. In one such encounter, a pair even begins “dancing” with us for a few moments, rolling, turning, and winding around us and each other. They glide away, then circle back, spyhopping just next to us. In a second encounter, a mom brings her tiny calf in for a close look, circling us several times before eventually heading off.

© Kai Matthes

© Kai Matthes

A last encounter is also special: a stationary singer. In contrast to several “one-man traveling band” singers we’ve encountered this season, this eager male allows us to position ourselves directly above him for 10-15 minutes at a time. The unique patterns of this year’s song are clearly evident, with a “three squeaks and one moan” phrase apparently quite popular (while humpbacks may sing continuously for more than 24 hours, the basic song consists of patterns that repeat every 8-12 minutes or so). Cetaceans have no vocal cords, so whales generate their songs by forcing air through their massive nasal cavities, and the force of these reverberations are felt in our chests. It’s an impressive performance as part of another great (and varied!) week on the Silver Bank.


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Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

2 thoughts on “Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W6

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