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Humpback Whale, mother & calf 3747

Humpback Whale, mother & calf 3747

Humpback Whales. Pacific Humpback Whales are a species of baleen whale, meaning that they filter feed by straining krill and small schooling fish out of the water by running it through a filter-feeder system inside their mouths. Baleen is similar to bristles on a brush and is made of the same material as fingernails. Though not the largest of the whale species, the Humpback is relatively large, ranging up to 60 feet in length and 50 tons in weight. They are one of the more interesting whale species, both anatomically and in terms of behavior. While most whales have proportionately relatively small pectoral fins, those on the Humpback are up to 15 feet long! These uniquely-long fins give Humpbacks remarkable maneuverability, allowing them to turn sharply, slow down quickly, and even swim backwards.

Their behavioral patterns also make them quite interesting. First, Humpbacks are well know to whale-watchers for their “breaching,” and they can leap almost totally out of the water. While they are not the only specie to do this, they seem to be the most enthusiastic. Scientists are not certain why they engage in this behavior. Many believe they do it to rid themselves of parasites. Others seem to believe they may do it out of sheer joie de vivre.

Second, they appear to be the only specie that “sings.” These magical songs involve complex sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises and can go on for hours at a time and be heard as far away as 20 miles. These songs are not just random noises. Instead, the songs have a distinct beginning and ending, as well as a definable progression. As a result, their songs can be repeated, and scientists can record and recognize particular songs. Moreover, we have learned that whales tend to sing the same songs within a large area. For example, all North Atlantic Humpbacks will sing the same songs, while Humpbacks in the North Pacific will sing different songs; and scientists have discovered that the songs in the repertoire of the whales in an area will change slowly over time and not repeat. Interestingly, whales have no vocal cords and, instead, generate their songs by forcing air through their nasal cavities.

Third, whales are highly intelligent and social animals, and Humpbacks have developed an extraordinary and unique way of coordinated hunting, known as “bubble net feeding.”
For this technique, a group of Humpbacks will locate a school of fish, swim as a group under the school, commence swimming in a circle below the fish, and begin exhaling bubbles as they swim. This creates a “bubble ring” that, as it rises, forms a curtain that surrounds the school. This circular “curtain” can start as large as 100 feet in diameter and grow increasingly smaller, as the fish are driven together. Scientists have observed with video cameras that this activity is so closely coordinated between the whales that some of them blow bubbles, others d
ive below and drive fish toward the surface, and still others herd into the “bubble net” by vocalizing. At the right moment, in a sudden and carefully coordinated action, the hunting whales will swim swiftly upward, in the center of the ring, with their mouths wide open. They continue until they reach the surface and have taken in thousands of fish.

HUMPBACK WHALES ARE ENDANGERED! Don’t get me started on this subject! Humpback Whales, in many ways the most interesting of whale species, have been protected as “endangered,” under laws established by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the International Whaling Commission, the Endangered Species Act in the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Plan, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, and other national and international laws.

Perhaps the most urgent and heated debate today, relating to whale protection against whaling, is taking place in the Southern Ocean, in the waters around Antarctica. In a nutshell, in 1994, the International Whaling Commission established the Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary, designated the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. It prohibited all whaling in the Southern Ocean, but allowed a limited exemption from this prohibition, to permit whaling for “research” purposes. The Japanese have continued massive whaling activities, each Antarctic “summer,” killing hundreds of whales, some endangered, under the claimed authority of this research exemption. The photographer and most observers believe that the claim of exemption is a sham.

One organization – the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society – has been involved for years in an aggressive campaign in the Southern Ocean, in an effort to stop this illegal whaling . . . before it is too late. It is a fascinating, ongoing story that can be followed on television, in a documentary series called “Whale Wars” (which can be accessed through Netflix). Please visit the Sea Shepherd website, for further information on this fascinating struggle.