March 7 ~ March 14, 2015
Humpback whales are known as the “acrobats of the sea” for good reason: their range of spectacular activity above water and balletic movements below are unparalleled among the large whales. For this, they owe much to their extraordinarily long pectoral fins, the longest of any appendage on any animal alive today. Measuring up to 1/3 of the whale’s body length, the pectoral fins even lend themselves to the humpback’s scientific (genus) name Megaptera, or “large-winged”. Although derived from the same bones that comprise our own arms, the fins are modified externally to perfectly align with the humpback’s watery environment and improbable dreams of flight. Indeed, they are so well suited to sliding through water and wind that they are being studied by engineers seeking to improve design for propellers, turbine blades and helicopters.
Humpbacks create momentum for their famous spinning breaches by throwing their pec fins across their body like the arms on a platform diver. Apparently, this skill takes time to master: babies are often seen practicing breaches, informed by mom. This week on the Silver Bank we come across just such a baby, his energy seemingly inexhaustible. Over and over and over again he breaches (more than 30 times altogether), his movements imperfect but obviously enthusiastic. Later, we are treated to a pair of adult whales who demonstrate the entire suite of humpback breaches, and add in several pectoral slaps and tail lobs for good measure.
While breaching humpbacks certainly embody power and drama, below water they are all subtlety and grace. Here too the pectoral fins are critical, acting as rudder and stabilizer for their streamlined bodies. We are fortunate this week to observe multiple lovely slow fly-by passes from paired adults, mother-calf pairs with escorts, and even larger groups. In every case, the whales pass just below or next to us, and in many cases, they roll slowly for a better look. Despite their proximity, we feel no threat: their graceful pectoral fins allow them perfect control over their course. In one notable instance, a mother and calf pair with escort are joined by three traveling whales. The incoming whales emit a consistent “whomp, whomp, whomp” call as they approach, strong enough to feel. All six whales flow past and around each other like silk, a thrilling encounter for those of us watching. In another instance, a resting rowdy group passes just below, in formation reminiscent of birds in flight.
More interesting encounters follow. Sockeye makes another appearance this week, with a different mom and calf. Like in our previous encounter, he is gently but firmly possessive. While mom and calf settle, Sockeye again makes repeated passes under and around the boat, as well as rising up directly below those in the water. The trio eventually leave together, but several hours later, we come by Sockeye again without mother and calf. Did the pair tire of his possessiveness? Did he lose them to a stronger challenger? In any case, he has begun to sing in earnest, settled head down in the water column. To our ears, the song sounds like yearning, but it may also be a challenge to whomever has claimed his lady.
In a last highlight for the week, we come across a rowdy group of four whales. The group is moving slowly, but the pace picks up as one, then two, then three whales sweep in. We position ourselves among the whales, in the midst of the swirling action. It’s a fittingly exciting end to a week that has brought plenty of surface activity, some unique underwater encounters, and an additional round with a celebrity whale.
Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures