Over-whale-ming!

I’m going to start with two apologies. One, for the terrible pun of a title. I didn’t come up with it myself if that makes it any better. Which it probably doesn’t. Secondly, I apologise for the fact that it has been a particularly long wait since the last update. I thought it made more sense to relay my experiences carrying out volunteer fieldwork for the Pacific Whale Foundation in one go, to attempt to give some coherence to all the information I learnt, some of which I will impart, as well as the varied encounters.

A Foundation of Knowledge

My first day volunteering with the Pacific Whale Foundation began with a briefing. I was the sole volunteer at the foundation. I coincided for a few days with Wendy, who has done volunteer fieldwork for two previous seasons and this year was working for the foundation, training interns. She is also a biologist with an MA in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, so I was a touch undereducated in the field in comparison. Normally volunteers don’t receive training, they are given a camera and off they go on boat trips, so the lucky coincident of the few days with Wendy meant I began by learning a hell of a lot, which was then incredibly useful in understanding the behaviour I later observed, and also meant I could help out by inputting data.

Monday morning we began with humpback basics: anatomy, breeding and feeding grounds, the various pod compositions, different behaviours and photo identification.

The most basic fact about humpbacks: they are baleen whales. Whales are divided into two distinct sub-orders: those with teeth and those without. Humpback whales belong to the group without teeth; instead they have baleen, long, black, rigid strips of material, similar to that of human fingernails, which hang down from either side of the upper jaw and are used as a filtering system to trap small fish and marine organisms inside its mouth when feeding. The fact that humpbacks are baleen whales affects all aspects, from their anatomy to feeding habits to social organisation.

Machalilla National Park, a protected area around Puerto Lopez which stretches across roughly three parallel kilometres of ocean as well, makes up part of the breeding ground of the South Pacific Humpback population, and as I learnt, humpback whales have very distinct breeding and feeding grounds. Therefore, the behaviour I would be observing would often be related to mating.

courtesy of the Pacific Whale Foundation Bright red: breeding ground Dark red: feeding ground

courtesy of the Pacific Whale Foundation
Bright red: breeding ground
Dark red: feeding ground

My fieldwork would take the form of roughly three-hour-long boat trips, five days a week. Armed with the foundation’s camera which had a 300mm lens (in layman’s terms, one of those lenses which looks like it could poke out your eye), I would ride in the whalewatching boats along with the tourists, and photograph every single millisecond of humpback surface activity possible, making brief notes on pod composition and behaviour.

POD COMPOSTION

Humpback associations are very transient. The most stable pod association is the mother-calf pair, as a calf will remain with its mother for roughly one year after birth. These pairs tend to have a slower pace, particularly if the calves are newly born; as a female gestates for roughly 11-12 months, the calves are born at the same time of year as they are conceived, and therefore in this mating area. In breeding grounds it is common for one male to join them as an ‘escort’, as it is possible for females to get pregnant whilst lactating another calf, or to have male-female pair without a calf. These associations can range from a few hours to a few days. At the least stable end of the scale is the heat run association: one nuclear female followed by a number of males in a hierarchy who compete with each other. A pod of this type will usually be fast moving and can last mere minutes.

Lone individuals, always males in breeding grounds, are common and are still classified scientifically as a pod.

BEHAVIOUR

I was given a behaviour key. The most common surface behaviour is sailing, basically the whale swimming along with its dorsal fin curving above the surface every now and then much like a sail, or blowing, when a whale surfaces to breathe and therefore sends a plume of water droplets into the air through its blowholes.

Almost all other behaviour relates to different levels of aggression which males exhibit as they compete for a female. In the breeding grounds an adult female is never alone. She tends to swim along accompanied by a primary escort and a number of males, who compete to displace the primary escort, trying to get between the primary escort and female until there remains one victor who, having proven his manoeuvrability and endurance and therefore suitability as a potential donor of DNA, may, just may, get the chance to mate with her. The actual act of mating has never been scientifically documented.

The competitive behaviour visible on the surface during this heat run starts at the relatively chilled out end of the scale: a male may engorge his throat, believed to be so that he looks bulkier and more threatening, or shake his head. If the competition starts to heat up a bit, jaw clapping may follow, or lunging forwards out of the water with his inflated head. At the I-really-want-to-kill-you end of the scale, as Wendy put it, males may perform a head slap, propelling half of their body out of the water and slapping it with tremendous force onto the water’s surface, or one of the most aggressive moves possible, a peduncle throw, throwing the rear portion of their body out of the water and slamming into on the surface. At this stage males may butt each other with their heads, or jostle and push at each other, and have been known to draw blood and cause injury. Indeed, one way of guessing the sex of an adult is to use close up photographs to examine their dorsal fins: females usually have hardly any marks or damage, whereas males have deep marks, scars or even chunks missing.

Finally, there is the most spectacular move of them all: breaching, or the full body jump which humpbacks in particular are so famous for. It is not known for certain exactly what purpose breaching serves. There have been suggestions that it allows a whale to signal its position to other whales, see what is above the water’s surface, or ‘GPS’ their own location.

PHOTO IDENTIFICATION

The bottom of the tail fin, or ventral fluke, of each whale is like a human fingerprint. The coloration varies from all white to all black, with many mixed variations in between. Over roughly 16 years, Dr Christina Castro, the Research Director of the Ecuadorian branch of Pacific Whale Foundation, has compiled catalogues with the fluke prints of 3000 individual humpbacks. Photo identification, and thus individual identification and resightings, is crucial for analysing many aspects of the humpback whale, such as population, distribution, social dynamics and migratory movements. The fluke patterns of calves do not properly set until a year or two.

A range of flukes i gathered over my 3 weeks of fieldwork

A range of flukes i gathered over my 3 weeks of fieldwork

Photographs of dorsal fins allow for help with determining the sex of the animal and any significant scarring may also help identification at a further date. Therefore close ups of flukes and dorsal fins were my main focus.

A comparison of dorsal fins

A comparison of dorsal fins

So with all of these details swirling in my head, I set off to begin the actual fieldwork.

 

Week 1

Wendy came along on my first boat trip so I understood quite how many photos to take, and how to quickly categorise and understand the often fleeting glimpses of surface activity, particularly in relation to the composition of a pod.

We came across the sad sight of a sea lion who had either been entangled in a fishing net, or whose carcass had been tied up in fishing lines to attract fish.

After a couple of hours of constant alertness we had a break while the tourists had a snorkelling stop and ate the banana cake handed out every trip (not that I looked forward to the cake every day after that or anything), then we headed back to the pier.

In the evening Wendy showed me how to input the data into a spreadsheet (boat name, launch and return time, weather, tide, pod number, composition and behaviour) and then how to organise and edit photographs of dorsal fins and tail flukes so that they could be added to the identification catalogues.

Wendy left the next day, but I soon got into the swing of things on my own. I got to know various capitans and marineros (the helping hands) who were always friendly. As time went on, the day invariably began with shouts from various capitans, sat on the top deck by their steering wheels, arguing that ‘Elenita’ should be on their boat for the day.

Each evening I spent anywhere between half an hour to three hours inputting the data and organising the photos. The large table in my apartment became my work station, with books and scientific papers on humpbacks piled in between the large camera, extra equipment, a whale poster, clipboard, behaviour key and extra data sheets. My eyes often went square from staring at minute markings on dorsal fins for too long, trying to ensure accurate matches.

My quickly growing obsession, fed by all the reading material I consumed, meant that although I may be an English and Creative Writing graduate and much as I protested to all the boat crews that I had no formal education in the relevant field, I was soon known as a biologist.

More than 15 pods, 12 hours, and 2500+ photographs later, the week ended on a particular high with an amazing experience, which I detailed in a short article for the Pacific Whale Foundation blog:

The Perfect Tour

Friday 15th August

Our small whalewatching boat was following a lone adult male humpback whale as he swam through the water, every now and then blowing a spurt of water vapour into the air as he surfaced to breathe and curving his dorsal fin out as he swam back under. It had taken us half an hour to find him, our first sighting of the day’s tour, so it had been a pretty slow start.

We followed him for about ten minutes. Glancing up in the direction he was headed, I saw an unusual sight. Over a seemingly nondescript area of water, a hundred or more blue-footed boobys were spiralling. From a distance it looked as though, periodically, birds were suddenly dropping out of the sky, hurtling towards the water, but as we approached I realised these plummets were precision dives, with the birds pulling out just above the surface of the sea. I then noticed many more birds bobbing about in the water, like a small, feathery fleet of boats a passing school of fish must have attracted the attention of the boobys, I guessed, and caused the concentrated activity.

As we got closer many of the tourists on board the boat started pointing and exclaiming. All around us dolphins were leaping out of the water and skimming along just below the surface. After observing whales recently, the dolphins seemed unbelievably agile, fast and very very small. It was difficult to see much detail besides dark, shiny blurs, but Christina later confirmed from my blurry photographs that it was a pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins, which are normally roughly 2.5m in length when fully grown, in comparison to the 13-16m of the adult humpback whales, and have been previously encountered in offshore areas in schools of hundreds, even thousands.

Then the whales came. To one side of our boat, a large pod swam towards the area the birds spiralled, possibly twelve individuals the captain estimated. To our other side, where the birds bobbed and flew around, there were several more pods swimming amid the leaping dolphins, though there were so many individual whales that I had no chance of identifying which were travelling in the same direction and interacting with each other, and therefore which could be categorised as separate pods. They all exhibited similar behaviour: sailing, the term given to whales swimming along, blowing, and very frequently, no blow rises (rising to the surface without blowing).

The captain said the humpbacks had congregated for the fish, but I wasn’t so certain. Machalilla National Park makes up part of the area identified as the breeding ground of the South Pacific humpback population. Feeding has only rarely been documented in the breeding grounds of any of the world’s humpback populations, and indeed I saw no signs of lunge feeding (a technique whereby the humpbacks opens its mouth near the surface and swims back and forth engulfing the prey) or bubblenet feeding (when the humpback dives beneath its prey and turns in a board circle, emitting bubbles from its blowhole, so that when these bubbles ascend, they form a noisy ring around the prey, disorientating them long enough for the humpback to swim upwards and engulf the food). My best amateur, and somewhat flimsy, stab at a guess is that the whales had been attracted by the activity. Simply put, they were curious.

Whichever it was, the experience was incredible, far too much to take in. Birds crying out, swooping, circling, dolphins springing and arching out of the water, riding beside the bow of our boat and darting away as white shadows just beneath the surface, and the giant whales amid all this activity, rising slowly with their knobbly heads.

What is more, when I later came to input my data for the day, I realised my estimates had been right: this wasn’t just a short, fleeting momentary experience, it lasted half an hour.

As our boat headed back towards shore, everyone on board chattered excitedly. It had been an unusual and particularly exciting tour and to round it off, a lone male suddenly surfaced close to us, tail slapping. The fluke of his tail disappeared beneath the water’s surface and the anticipation began to mount. Suddenly, with an explosion of water droplets, his enormous black and white bulk was thrown up and out of the water, in a spectacular breach. The day’s tour had been about as near perfect as it can get.

 

Week 2

Week 2 began with an encounter with a male and female adult who seemed to be exhibiting courtship behaviour (a lot of body contact, rubbing of bellies, slapping of tail and pectoral fins) and then began to jump, or breach, one after another, time and time again, leaping in a kind of explosive, watery chain, each breach as spectacular and exciting as the last. All this commotion soon attracted other males and the courting stopped and the chase after the female began.

During the week I had a heat run with nine adults chasing one female, churning up the water with their tail slaps and peduncle throws, and also came across a lone male who seemed content to spend his afternoon simply breaching much to our delight.

 

Friday, we met a young calf with its mother and an escort. The calf was still grey in colour so probably no more than 2 weeks or so old, and incredibly playful, slapping its fins and trying to propel itself out of the water in the semblance of a breach. It came so close to our boat, almost touching the bow as it rolled around at the surface, and I realised that the minute animal was perhaps not quite so minute; even at its very young age, it looked vast compared to the people sat on the front of the boat.

Week 3

For my final week I was joined by a new intern, Marcel from Sao Paulo, for many a nerdy chat about humpbacks and joint boat trips. The week began with two adult males slapping their pectorals and tails onto the water’s surface incredibly close to our boat, perhaps thinking we were after the same female as they were, and passing underneath us as faint white shapes deep below. When working on photo identification that evening with Christina and Marcel, we had the rare and exciting moment of a resighting match: one of the males had been seen in these waters 9 years ago.

During the rest of the week I encountered multiple young calves, leaping out of the water and rolling around, similar to excitable puppies, as well as fast paced heat run pods, and slower more chilled groups, where the males seemed to be going about competing for the female without much sense of urgency.

 

Helen’s Diving Day Out

As a break, from all the stress of having to work with humpback whales every day, I went scuba diving on a day off. A boat took us about ninety minutes out into the ocean then anchored up and a group of nine of us slowly descended holding onto a line.

Beneath the surface, it was stunning. Turtles swam around us, looking almost like they were flying with the fanning motion of their flippers in the deep blue. There were vast shoals of fish and fans of coral on the pinky-grey, rocky bottom, and small rays, a mottled sandy colour, lying motionless and well camouflaged on the sea floor, sometimes having sifted a layer of sand onto their backs.

Just as most of us had laboriously got back onto the boat and got out of our equipment, and the boat was coming around to pick up the last three people, a manta ray passed us very close to the surface, an enormous animal, far larger than I had imagined, and beautifully shiny black and white in colour. Felt quite gutted I hadn’t been in the water to see it better, but lucky that at least I got a glimpse.

The second dive was even more spectacular than the first, with more turtles, rays, shoals of fish and the addition of a current running through the water, evident from the tunnel of small fish which stretched far into the distance in each direction (think Finding Nemo without the whizzing turtles). Passing into the tunnel the water was incredibly cold. We also saw an individual of another species of ray, a greyish colour and very large, more than 1.5 metres across, but much as I search for the precise species online I cannot be certain.

(Thank you to Native Diving for the photos.)

 

A Lovely Day for a Family Reunion

After my three weeks were up, I said goodbye to my last breaching whale and caught the overnight bus to Quito. It is currently 5am, and I am sat in the huge glassy terminal using the free wifi to put this up, while I wait for the sun to rise before I take a taxi into the old town area of the city.

The most exciting event of all: this evening my family fly in from London! I apologise in advance to the whole of Quito, and indeed Ecuador, for how much noise we will inflict on you in the next three weeks.

 

As a final extra, during this week it was exactly 6 months since I began my journey, and I thought I would mark this with a map of my route so far. According to goggle maps, minus the two short flights flying into and out of the rainforest in Bolivia, I have travelled about 9200 miles/14800kilometres so far!

 

And now for the ultimate English graduate move… ending on a quotation:

‘Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.’

Moby Dick, ‘Chapter 134: The Chase–Second Day’, Herman Melville

 

 

Dr. Christina Castro is the Research Director of the Ecuadorian branch of the Pacific Whale Foundation. If you would like more information on volunteering, internships or anything else please contact Christina: palosanto22@gmail.com.

 

A Few Extra Facts about Humpback Whales

which I came across in the course of my obsessive reading

WEIGHT

An adult humpback weighs nearly 40 tons (36,000kgs). Its head compromises a third of this weight, with the tongue weighing roughly 2 tons (1800kgs).

In comparison, a calf only weighs about 1-2 ton (900-1800kgs) when born.

SKELETAL WEIGHT

In terrestrial animals, the bones make up roughly 50% of the total body weight; in humpbacks this is a mere 15%. The marrow of their bones contain a fatty oil, which makes some of their bones float.

SIZE

Humpbacks display reverse sexual dimorphism: the adult females are larger than the males by roughly 1-2m in length.

ADAPTATION

The skin coloration of humpbacks, as well as many other marine mammals, is referred to as countershading: darker on top and lighter underneath. When looking down into the darker depths of water, a darker object will absorb light and be harder to detect; when looking up towards the surface, a light-coloured object will reflect light and therefore also be hard to detect.

WHALE SONG

Singing primarily occurs in the breeding season, with little or no singing in the feeding grounds. Only males have been found to sing, but the exact function can only be guessed at. There is little evidence to suggest it attracts females though it may affect their choice possibly. However, it is far more common for lone singing males to be joined by other adult males rather than to have females approach singers, so perhaps it allows the males to size each other up, allowing for an ordering of status, or perhaps functions as a spacing mechanism to spread males across the breeding ground area. As with many aspects of whale behaviour, nobody currently really understands its purpose.

Unlike the song of birds, for example, whale song constantly evolves. Each breeding season it slowly changes as it is passed along and sung over and over by many individuals. Research has found whales who have switched breeding grounds and thereby introduced songs from other humpback populations, which then, in turn, evolve.

A humpback song is made up of basic units. A series of units makes a phrase, and multiple phrases, always sung in the same order, make a theme. A sequence of themes make up a song, which usually lasts between 5-20 minutes.

References:

  • Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World, Reeves, Stewart, Clapham and Powell
  • Hawaii’s Humpback Whales: A Complete Whalewatcher’s Guide, Forestell and Kaufman
  • ‘Male Competition in Large Groups of Wintering Humpback Whales’, Tyack and Whitehead Marine Mammal Science, Vol 17, No.3, July 2001, ‘Interactions of Singing Humpback Whales with Other Males’, Darling
  • The Humpback Whale, ‘Seasonal Feeding and Breeding in a Baleen Whale’, Clapham
  • ‘Use of Lateral Body Pigmentation Patterns for Photographic Identification of East Australian (Area V) Humpback Whales’, Kaufman, Smultea and Forestell

A massive thank you to Sam for editing endless whale photos for me. You’re awesome.

One thought on “Over-whale-ming!

  1. Andrianna says:

    Hi Helen,
    What a fabulous account of your travels. Sounds like you’ve had a whale of a time (Oh God, did I just write that?) Seriously though, what a wonderful experience you’ve been through. Loving your blogs – I feel as though I’m travelling vicariously around South America, thanks to you. Have a great time with the family – hugs and love to you all. xxxxxxx

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