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Humpback Whales (Megáptera novaeangliae)

Ecotourism in Action: Whale Watching as One of the Best Recreational Activities
Whale Watching as One of the Best Recreational Activities
A worldwide popularity of ecotourism grew with an amazing pace in recent years. Hunters and fishermen of yesterday more and more realize today that showing the nature's riches of their country to tourists turns out to be much more interesting and profitable than extirpating the already decreasing populations of wild animals. And this is particularly true in the situation with whales, the largest animals on Earth.
Just half a century ago the only way to gain some profit out of whales was killing them to further use their meat, baleen and blubber, but today even the most active whalers have changed their job and become defenders of whales. It’s no wonder, a demand for travel packages including whale watching today far exceeds a demand for whale products, and ocean ecotours on boats for whale watching bring more than $100 billion a year to its providers worldwide. This is much more than you can make on hunting.
One of the most important objects of the whale ecotourism is a humpback whale. Some of its biological features make this species very convenient for watching, and wide areas of habitat allow travel agencies to organize sea travels for watching these whales in different parts of the world. Best of all, a humpback whale is really very interesting and convenient for tourists!
Humpback whale: General Description
As all its relatives — cachalots, killer whales, dolphinshumpback whale is a mammal fully adapted to aquatic life. According to scientists cetaceans have common ancestors with hippopotamuses. About 60 million years ago the populations were divided, as a result hippopotamuses adapted to semi-aquatic manner of living in fresh water and the whales chose the seas and oceans. Their hind legs grew together and stretched out to form the fin, which propels the whales by vertical movement.
Whales don’t have the respiratory mechanism to breath underwater, so they must keep themselves close to water surface for breathing. Adult whales can dive for half an hour holding their breath. But usually diving takes no longer than 5 minutes.
Interestingly, a newborn whale calf cannot dive. Immediately after a whale’s birth water pushes a newborn to the surface where the calf begins to breathe. It is taught to dive by adult whales later.
The whales have a plug in their ears constantly growing in thickness throughout their life. New layers grow on the plug every year during migration; these layers are used by scientists to estimate the animals age. The plug of old animals can be as thick as 40 cm.
Whales see perfectly both underwater and in the air. However, they prefer to communicate in water with their voice.
An average age of a humpback whale is 35 years; the oldest ever caught male was 48 years old, the female — 38 years.
A humpback whale is distinctive with its very long pectoral fins, which reach 5 meters length each. No other species of whales has such a long fins.
There are 25-30 deep broad bands on a belly of the humpback whale that are a distinctive feature of this species. It was called a humpback whale for its low and thick dorsal hump-like fin.
A usual color of the whale back and sides is black or dark brown. The fins can also be either black or mottle and in exceptional cases even white.
A humpback whale’s head is covered with a large number of distinctive tubercles and each one of them has a single bristle in the center.
Humpback whales eat krill and fish — mackerel, sardines, anchovies. A whale can literally break its mouth open due to special throat grooves. Humpback whales have 15 to 20 such grooves and their stretching enables a whale to increase its mouth size up to 10 times. So its jaws form a huge net where schooling food organisms can be easily gathered.
Whales have a special filter in the mouth consisting of 300-400 black baleen plates covered with coarse bristles that make it possible to filter large amounts of water with small organisms. The bristles can be up to 1 meter long. The water is thrown to the air after filtering through the top blowholes and compressed krill is swallowed. Humpback whales don’t have teeth.
When wintering in the waters of the southern seas whales eat little or even get along without food. Their diet is most extensive and plentiful in the northern waters in spring and summer. They eat a variety of food organisms there, even cephalopods. However, they have clear preferences. In Antarctica, for example, humpback’s basic food is black-eyed maxillopods.
Interestingly, the whales cannot drink salt water. All the liquid required for their life is obtained out of fish and crustaceans they eat.
Humpback whales inhabit all oceans and major seas of the world. It does not appear only in the polar regions of the Arctic Ocean.
As many of its relatives, a humpback whale attracts attention with its huge size. It is no wonder; animals of about 15 meters long were found. Many nature lovers dream to watch such creatures at least from a distance, and also diving with whales is very common because humpback whales are not aggressive and allow divers to approach themselves at close distance. It is not surprising that the numbers provided by scientists to describe humpback whales are really impressive.
Humpback Whale in Figures
According to unconfirmed reports, the largest humpback whales reach a length of 20 meters, while today the specialists do not encounter animals longer than 18 meters. This is explained by the fact that most of the oldest and largest creatures were killed in the last century during active whaling.
In addition biological characteristics of whales include other notable features:
  • A humpback whale can eat up to 1 ton of food per summer day in food-rich polar waters.
  • A humpback whale fluke can be up to 5 meters wide.
  • An air velocity at the outlet of the respiratory tract of a whale reaches 300 km/h during breathing out.
  • A humpback whale brain weight is 4.5 kg. For comparison: a human brain weight is about 1.4 kg, a dolphin’s brain’s weight is 3 kg, and a cachalot’s brain weight is about 9 kg.
  • Up to 400 kg of various knots and polyps can be formed on the head and fins of a humpback whale throughout its life. Males skillfully use them in battles with other males.
  • A reproductive organ of an adult male of a humpback whale can be 2.5 m long.
  • An adult whale has up to 50 cm of subcutaneous fat layer.
  • Humpback whales can dive to a depth of 200 meters, but usually they rarely dive deeper than 70 meters.
Of course it is always interesting to watch such giants. No wonder that tourists from around the world are ready to pay for sea travels to places where the humpback whales are often found. And the whales in turn arrange a genuine entertainment for spectators…
Behavior of Humpback Whales and Whale Watching
Of all relative species, humpback whales are considered the most acrobatic. Humpbacks often jump out of water and sometimes their whole body resides entirely in the air. Such tricks are most often performed by males during mating season for demonstrating their strength and power, however, the whales don’t mind to play at other time. To watch the wales playing, special travel agencies in certain periods regularly arrange sea tours on boats letting travelers from all over the world to enjoy this wonderful performance.
Humpbacks are also convenient for ecotourism because they prefer staying in shallow water and most of the time they rest within visual range from a shore. So sailing for whale watching does not require much time.
In addition, humpback whales are rather tolerant to disturbance caused by the presence of humans. They often accompany ships and do not worry even when small boats and motor boats go around them. Only young whales are worried by the ships and they try to keep off even small boats.
Humpback whales are easily distinguished from other species of whales. Naturalist guides on travel boats quickly identify them by specific profile of their back and by their fountain shape. Each fountain is thrown in 5-15 seconds; a small portion of 6-8 fountains is followed with a short break.
Today humpback whale watching is no longer a very exotic for residents of certain countries. Hundreds of tour operators and private companies in the United States, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic offer tourists an opportunity to go out for a day in open sea and watch a group of whales feeding or resting in certain seasons. And in the mating season travelers also have an opportunity to admire grand leaps of these giants. For Americans such watching has become a common excursion that can be made any weekend, but for most Russian tourists a whale on the horizon is very exotic.
Although mating season is the most noticeable time to see humpbacks, their reproduction usually occurs in fairly remote and quiet places.
Reproduction of Humpback Whales
In general humpback whales do not have any specific season for mating but in some whale populations, especially migratory ones, mating and breeding usually occurs in specific places that they visit while migrating. The largest part of humpback whales mates in winter.
Humpback whales become sexually mature at age of 5-6 years. Females usually reach sexual maturity a bit earlier and males — a year or two later. Usually by this time the length of their bodies reaches 12 meters and ear plugs consist of 10-11 layers. After this age whales grow very slowly and can become 3-4 meters longer.
Females with calves of one to two years are the first ones to come to the breeding places. They are followed by young whales, then adult males and the major parts of the groups. Sometimes a female with a calf accompanied by an adult male, but in most cases it is not the calf’s father.
In the breeding places whales form groups of a few individuals only sometimes joining together in large groups. Typically, a large male tries to isolate a female from the group and then gets into fights with other males. They keep jumping and showing their strength the entire time: flapping their fins and tail, throwing big jets of water and air. When mating the males hardly eat anything and can lose up to 20% of their body weight.
A very important element of the mating behavior of whales is clapping with their long pectoral fins. This gesture is also an invitation to mate and a mother’s call of a calf.
In general female humpback whale carefully chooses a father of the future calf, but in some cases they can mate with several males during the breeding season.
Pregnancy of humpback whales lasts for about one year with possible one month deviations. Accordingly, the calves are born at the same time and in the same places where mating games take place. Females with newborn calves are the last that leave breeding places.
Usually female humpback whales give birth once in a year or two. A female gives birth to 10-12 calves in a lifetime, but a female gives birth to only one calf at a time. A newborn whale calf is 5-6 meters long; its body weight is 1.5 tons.
A calf needs 300 to 400 liters of milk every day. Mammary glands are located in lower body of a female, near the tail. A calf has a very small mouth and no sucking reflex (a calf’s mouth length is only 15% of its body length while in an adult’s mouth reaches 30% of its body length), so the milk is sprayed into its mouth due to muscle contractions of the mother.
Whale milk is very nutritious and rich. It contains up to 50% of fat while fat content in human milk is only about 6%. In addition to fat whale milk contains about 10% of protein, sugar, vitamins and some biologically active substances.
The female feeds the baby for 4-5 months. During that time a calf grows twice of its initial size.At an age of one year a baby whale becomes independent.These teens group together and follow the groups of adult animals learning the tricks of migrating and navigating in an ocean.
After introduction of the worldwide ban on humpback hunting their only enemies remain sharks and killer whales. These animals are a threat only to calves because a grown up baby whale that is 7-8 long is too big even for large killer whales. Nevertheless, about 35% of calves die at young age.
Where to Go To Watch Humpback Whales?
Despite the fact that humpback whales live all over the world their populations are very sparse. For this reason the probability of meeting with them during a sea traveling or cruise is rather low.
The best solution would be going to the places of their annual mating. They can be definitely met there and you will have a chance to watch their spectacular leaps.
Typically, the northern whale populations spent spring and summer in the Arctic where they diligently gain fat. Towards fall they migrate in groups to the tropics. That is where the most exciting performances of humpback whales are occurred in the warm tropical waters.
The whale watching tourism is best organized in American countries. Florida and California please ecotourists with whale watching throughout winter. Florida travel companies take their clients to watch the Atlantic population and Californian companies — the Pacific population. And although the conditions here are not appropriate for diving (it is cold enough in winter here), these are the places where the whales can be seen in great numbers.
It is much more comfortable to watch humpbacks in Puerto Lopez Ecuador, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. In winter that is a season of mating it is so warm that divers and free divers have a chance to swim with the whales. Whales can be watched regularly on the Ecuadorian Coast from mid-June to September. These days there is no need to buy special exotic tours and travel packages for such watching: whale watching can be organized any day in almost every coastal city.
And tropical countries are great for their weather. There is no need to worry of bleak winds in open seas or low temperatures what sometimes discourages visitors of California and Florida. The sun, fresh sea breeze, gull cries above the deck – in such atmosphere a whale-watching turns into a real holiday.
Undoubtedly, divers have most fun out of watching humpback whales. Due to the fact that these animals are not predators they can be approached to a short distance and you can even touch their fins. That is why special diving tours to swim along with whales become extremely popular these days.
Whale Songs
Everyone knows that whales have remarkable vocal abilities. Despite the fact that the hearing mechanism of whales is very small their jaws work as a receiver from where the sounds are transmitted directly to the inner ear.
Whales "sing" only during mating. Singing is a privilege of males only.
Each song consists of a certain set of sounds of varying pitches and tones perceived by a human ear. One complete song can last for 2-15 minutes. The song style depends a lot on an emotional and physical condition of the animal and can be addressed to both females whom a male wants to attract with its song or to males as a warning. Experienced divers and researchers of cetaceans are able to understand the "mood" of a whale by their songs and even distinguish different individuals. Usually a singing male tries to get away from the surface to a depth of about 25 meters.
Interestingly, due to a high density of water the whale songs travel up to 100 km.
Because whales do not have vocal chords and they produce all the sounds by expelling air through special channels and cavities in the airways.
In addition to the "songs" whales can produce a large amount of most diverse sounds: screaming, coughing, growling, grinding, pipe-specific sounds and even howling. The last one is typical for adult whales during hazard or after an injury.
Research and Protection of Humpback Whales
As a result of robber hunting in the 19-20 centuries the number of humpback whales worldwide has decreased dramatically. It is believed that originally about 150,000 of these animals inhabited the world and sometimes they even entered the Mediterranean Sea while migrating. Today the number of humpback whales worldwide barely exceeds 20,000 animal units but thanks to the widespread preservation and protection this figure constantly grows.
Scientists studying humpback whales have developed a variety of methods for their identification. It is known that each humpback whale has a unique pattern on the inside of the fluke and a set of specific knots on the head. Individuals also differ from each other by their marking: the patterns on the body is never the same. A very old and experienced males also have a strictly individual set of scars remained after marriage battles or after encounters with large predators or small boats.
The remarkable fact is the whales living in the southern hemisphere have a pattern on the underside of the body that is well distinguishable from this of their northern fellow whales. And indeed the entire world population of humpback whales is divided into three major groups:
  • Northern group of rather light colors
  • Australian-New Zealand group, which is also light but with many spots
  • Atlantic-African group of dark colors
Ones in history in 1991 off the coast of Australia a completely white humpback whale was caught.
A good way to identify and study the humpback whale is the DNA analysis of the skin pieces, which remain on the water surface water particularly  after high jumps.
These days the greatest threat to whales is various toxic substances emitted into the seas and oceans and also the ships that kill a lot of these animals in collisions.
Compared with other types of whales the humpback whales less suffer from sonars used by people but this noise pollution also to a certain extent affects the status of their population.
A great contribution to science was made by the study of mobility and agility of humpback whales. Scientists wondered how such a bulky animal bigger and heavier than a bus can so easily change its direction and speed of motion.
It turned out that the secret lies in these special build-ups on its fins. When moving in water, these bumps create strong vortices and turbulence decreasing resistance compared to stagnant water. Surrounded by such vortices, a whale can move fairly long fins and control its movement with less power drain.
This principle is already used by construction engineers in designing helicopter blades, steering control of ships, aircraft blades and water turbines.
Fortunately, today a desire of people all over the world  to watch live whales in the wild leads to increasing popularity of ecotourism. Island countries of America and Africa have realized long ago that ecotourists who want to spent the whole day on a ship and watch feeding whales will bring them a greater revenue than hunting these whales. Even the Japanese who have been a scourge of all the whales in the Pacific and Indian Oceans today more and more often refuse to hunt and carry their tourists to the Far East Fjords to enjoy the magnificent fountains and jumping of whales. Such sea travels become more accessible and hopefully in the near future a sea tour for whale watching would become a favorite leisure for most tourists and would provide a everyone’s love and protection to whales.
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