February 27 ~ March 5, 2016
Week Six of our 26th Season
The North Atlantic Humpback Whales travel great distances every year from the feeding grounds of the North East coast of the United States, Iceland, Newfoundland and even Norway to the Silver Bank, approximately 90 miles north of the Dominican Republic. Like many migrating animals the reason is unknown but is surely for a combination of benefitting factors such as a safe environment with no predators to give birth and rear their young and warm waters to rid themselves of the cold water parasites from northern seas. But no matter what the reason, thousands of whales make their way here, enduring weeks or months of fasting in order to do so. Those that are not giving birth this season will have only one thing on their minds and that is procreation. Adult male Humpbacks will travel here with the intention of mating with as many females as possible in order to pass their genes on to the next generation. Young males will travel here to learn from the older males and perfect their techniques in fighting in order to be able to compete with the older males when they return as sexually mature adults. The females, however, just need to get pregnant and once they do they will hastily return to the productive and nutrient rich waters of the north, but that is not to say that some won’t take their time in choosing a suitable mate!
Almost all of the Humpback whale behaviors we encounter on the Silver Bank are in some way associated with mating, whether it is soliciting for a mate by fin slapping or singing, asserting dominance over other whales in order to impress a potential mate by breaching and lob tailing or fighting to secure position next to a potential mate by warding off challenging whales.
So far this year we have been extremely lucky to encounter many whales displaying the behavior we associate with pre-mating courtship, dancing. And this sixth week of the season was exceptional! On three consecutive days we came across the same female, identifiable by a distinctive scar on her ventral side, and each time she was with a different escort! She was certainly taking her time allowing the male humpbacks of the Silver Bank to show off their stuff and prove to her that they should be the one she should choose. Each time we encountered the female she would begin her gentle and sultry display right under and around our tenders almost as if she were flirting with both the escort and us! Usually the male escort would simply tolerate her curiosity in us and stay with her but keep his distance, circling every so often to carry out a perimeter check for potential challenging males. However on one occasion the escort joined in with the playful female and once again we were treated to a rare and unique ballet where both male and female turned and pirouetted in unison. This graceful and beautiful display gave us a privileged insight into the whales’ private lives, not only allowing us to observe them passively in their own environment but also to be invited into their intimate performance as they interacted with us, expertly maneuvering and gliding through the water only a few feet from the awe-inspired guests. It was unanimous amongst the guests and crew alike that this last suitor, with his patience and artistic flare should be her choice of partner!
With Humpback whales being as large and powerful as they are; adults measuring between 40 and 45 feet in length and weighing in at between 30 and 40 tons, when interactions become a little heated, we of course cannot enter the water, content to enjoy the top-side show and awesome photographic opportunities. On one such occasion this week we encountered an amorous trio of whales where a female had attracted the attentions of two males. While the curious female stayed close to our tender, the escort and challenging whale displayed their prowess with tail slashes and trumpet blows much to the delight of our onlooking guests. A trumpet blow is when a whale constricts their blow holes whilst exhaling to produce a loud, hollow note to demonstrate power and aggression much like the roar of a lion or the trumpet of an elephant.
On top of all this action and romance, our already overjoyed passengers experienced great surface activity as well as the chance to spend time in the water with sleeping whales and two very special encounters with mothers and calves. It truly is a privilege every time a mother gains our confidence and allows us the great honor of watching over her calf while she rests below. If you were to ask for the most treasured memory of those who have been fortunate enough to be in the water with a humpback whale, the answer would undoubtedly be a mother and calf encounter. There is nothing quite like witnessing so intimately the bond between a new mum and babe.
**Whale ID update** On returning to port after this fabulous week we were able to get online and discovered that our beautiful dancing female that we spent so much time with this week could be positively identified as the same whale we encountered in week four, dancing with another escort! It would appear that she really is quite choosy! She has already been nicknamed (an official name has not been given to this particular whale) “Mojo” by whale watch operators out of Virginia Beach and has been sighted in Newfoundland since at least 2008! It’s so wonderful to make the connections, and know that our Silver Bank whales are making their migrations safely year after year! Here’s hoping that we see “Mojo” next year, perhaps with a new calf!
The Aquatic Adventures team hopes that you are as inspired as we are to help sustain the humpback whale population. Through our partnership with the Center for Coastal Studies, we are helping to gain critical information on these charismatic creatures, and to seek ways to protect and preserve them. To find out more about this effort, join their mailing list or to make a donation, large or small, please visit:
Written by: Pippa Swannell, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures