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Visit with the Humpback Whales in Puerto Vallarta

by Griffin Page
Naturalist and Eco-guide

Every year, the most acrobatic of all whales, the Humpback, visits the Bay of Banderas in order to reproduce and give birth. Its arrival begins around mid to late October and extends to around end of March. During that time, some female whales give birth while others reproduce before returning to their feeding grounds in the north.

It is believed that these animals date back to the Eocene era, some 60 - 65 millions years ago and belong to the family of early mammals known as the Mesonychids. Mesonychids, it is also believed, were some of the first land dwelling mammals. These ancestral creatures were furry, had four legs, a tail, carried their fetuses until birth and nursed their young. Perhaps, they eventually discovered food was more easily available in shallow waters of the oceans, and through the long process of evolution, began adapting to aquatic environments to finally leave land behind them for good. Many links are still missing in this theory just as we are missing links in the theory of our own human evolution.


The Humpback whale is one of the most studied marine mammal and yet, we still know very little. One important trait of the Humpback whale is that each individual has a unique color pattern on the underside of its tail (more properly called a fluke), and which displays designs in varying tones of white, grey and black. This particular characteristic makes it possible for us to identify each different individual by simply taking a clear photo of the underside of its fluke. This way, we can, over many years' time, know who is where and doing what with whom. This also permits us to count and estimate the number of individuals of a certain population. A little nosy aren't we? Well, let us be nosy because the more we know and understand about these magnificent creatures, the more apt we are at protecting them and assuring their survival as a species.


A little bit of history


The earliest reports of whale sightings in the Bay of Banderas, date back to 1858 and mention the presence of mainly 2 species: the Humpback and the Grey whale. As a matter of fact, the bay was called Humpback Bay in the mid 1800's. Unfortunately, these reports come from log books of American whaling ships.


Many species of whales were hunted from the mid 1800's to mid 1900's. The humpback suffered great losses due to his closeness to shores and his relatively slow speed. At the time, a lot of commerce depended on whale based products. It was hunted for meat, oil which they used in street lamps and machinery lubrication, and the baleens were used to make corsets so the ladies could display a perfect hourglass figure.

In 1946, the International Whaling Commission was created to regulate whaling, but some nations didn't abide by the rules. Thankfully, a ban on all commercial whaling took effect in 1966 due to the growing public and scientific concern. It is estimated that the original population was numbered at around 100,000 individuals. By the 1960's, it had plummeted to a mere 6000 individuals. Today, the world's population is estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000. The Humpback whale is still listed as endangered in the IUCN Red Data Book.




Whaling by countries who ignore the ban.
Entanglement in fishing nets and ocean garbage.
Collision with ships.
Pollution from runoff and coastal developments.
Competition with commercial fisheries for food.
Noise pollution from boats, sonars, blasts, underwater mining and drilling.
Whale watching activities performed without regard to rules and regulations.

In the bay of Banderas, around 644 different individuals have been photo identified and included in the FIBB catalog (Foto Identificación Bahía de Banderas). Some biologists, organizations, eco-tour companies and their guides participate in the conservation of this species by taking pictures of the underside of Humpback whale flukes and send them to Astrid Frisch Jórdan who coordinates this catalog.



Why is it called the Humpback?


The name actually comes from its diving technique. Of all the marine mammals, this is the one that can arch its back so much when it dives down that it actually creates a hump. And of course, hence came the name.

Acrobats of the sea


The humpback whale's behavior is most often playful and the show they perform for us at times can be quite spectacular. Let us examine some of the behaviors that have made the Humpback whale so popular.


Breaching: This involves the whale diving straight down and then, turning around and swimming at top speed (18mph / 26kmph), straight up towards the surface. As the whale reaches the surface, his body then shoots out of the water, sometimes doing a half turn while extending his flippers outwards and landing with a huge splash. You can imagine the sound and visual impression a 30 to 50 ton whale crashing in the water can create. It is believed that this may occur because the whale is either playing, trying to rid himself of parasites (such as sea lice or barnacles), trying to communicate by displaying his strenght, size and power or to attract the attention of other whales.


Fin slapping: This means the whale is sideways, with its fin out of the water while he repeatedly slaps at the water's surface, creating splashes. Again, this may be for play, communication or used in fights during courtship groups. In this last case, males will hit one another with their barnacle ladden fins, causing injuries that may even occasionnally bleed.



Tail slapping: This case is similar to fin slapping where instead of the fin, the fluke is the part that is slapping at the water, while the whale's body is otherwise submerged. The reasons are also similar to fin slapping except that sometimes, it can also be a display of frustration or anger as in the case of a whale being harrassed by boats or trying to ward off potential male competitors when a female in heat is close by.


Spy-hopping: I like to call this particular behavior "people watching"; as we do whale watching, they also watch us. For this, they slowly come out of the water up to their pectoral fins and have a look around by rotating a little while the head is above water. After a little while, they slowly go back down the way they came.



What is a barnacle? It's a ocean creature that lives in a shell and attaches itself to the bodies of certain marine mammals, rocks or other organisms such as in the case of the Grey whales or the Humpback whales.


Their enchanting music


Perhaps in the past, you have heard recordings of enchanting underwater music. Maybe, you didn't know that some of these songs are performed by sexually mature male humpbacks and that these only occur in the mating grounds. For this reason, it is believed that males sing in order to impress and attract females but this theory has not been proven as of yet.
Why do we call it a song and not communication? Well first, these melodies are just that, melodies. They have verses and are structured just like our music. They have a certain repetition pattern and if you listen carefully and long enough, you can discern the similarities to our own musical compositions. Second, every year, the same song is repeated with a slight variation; a verse is changed, a new part is incorporated. Every 5 to 8 years, you end up with an entirely new composition.


We know that whales do not sing in their feeding grounds or during the migration south and that they do not travel in pods either. Therefore, some interesting questions arise: How come all the whales from a same population sing the same song, whether they are in Hawaii, Banderas' Bay or Revillagigedo Islands, and how do they learn it? Perhaps we should reassess our definition of a pod. Possibly, for the humpback, traveling in a pod may mean traveling kilometers apart.
However, just like us humans, there are good singers and well, some that are not so good. It appears that maturity and experience has a lot to do with how well and how long a whale can sing. Typically, a male Humpback will sing for approximately 20 minutes, surface for a few breaths and go back down to resume his vocalization. This process can be repeated for a very long time. The usual positioning of a singer is to be motionless, head facing down towards the bottom of the ocean - for better sound distribution - with its fins slightly open to about 45 degrees. Humpbacks can remain underwater without breathing for a maximum of about 35 - 40 minutes and certain whales can sing for up to 30 minutes.


Migration of the Humpback whale


Three different populations of Humpbacks inhabit the world's waters. First, we have the North Atlantic population, the North Pacific population and then there's the South Pacific / Atlantic population. The one that we will specifically discuss in this newsletter is the North Pacific population. This is the one that migrates here to Banderas' Bay. The migration cycle takes about a year. The Humpback will typically spend 3 to 4 months at their feeding grounds. These feeding grounds extends from the west coast of California, Canada up to the Golf of Alaska and the Bering sea. They principally feed on krill, plankton, shrimp, sardines and seem to love herring for its high content of fat. During that time, they will eat astonishing amounts of food every day in order to build up their layer of blubber (fat) that will protect them from the cold waters and prepare them for the migration south where food is almost non-existent. From there, they will travel more than 10,000 kilometers south to their breeding grounds. This trip can take between 2 to 3 months.


The North Pacific population will choose to migrate to one of 3 general areas in which they will either give birth, reproduce on just tag along for the ride as may be the case for those whales that have not yet reached sexual maturity. The reason for this long migration is the need for more temperate waters, as the newborn calves are born with a very thin layer of blubber and hence, could not support the cold waters of the North. The 3 most popular breeding areas are: Bay of Banderas, Islas Revillagigedo and Hawaii. Humpbacks may also visit the waters of the Sea of Cortez, off the east coast of the Baja California Peninsula, but this is known as a transitional place. They will spend an average of 3 to 4 months in these grounds. In Banderas' Bay, the average stay for one particular whale is around 11 days but of course, mothers and their newborn calves will remain longer. As these animals constantly travel, they usually come and go in and out of the bay area, so one particular whale can be seen over and over at different intervals during the reproduction season. Then, they return to the north to feed again in preparation for next years migration. And so, the cycle repeats.


Loving and caring mothers


Calves are born tail first, measure an average of 16 feet (5 mts.) and weight around 3 tons (1,400 kgs.). Newborns tend to sink and have a little bit of difficulty swimming at first. The mother tends to support it with her back and push him up to the surface regularly for him to breathe. Mind you, being aquatic animals, it doesn't take him long to acquire the necessary coordination that enables him to swim on his own.

He also soon discovers that his mother's huge tail creates a kind of counter current which follows her and so, he learns to place himself in that area in order to hitch a ride. This allows him to keep pace with the adults during the migration which is a dangerous time for newborns.


The relationship between mother and calf is a tight one. They remain close to each other throughout the first year. He will get nourishment by nudging the lower ventral part of his mother's body which will then release a very rich and thick milk similar in consistency to cottage cheese. A baby Humpback whale drinks 75 gallons (284 liters) of milk a day, the equivalent to that which is consumed by a human baby in one year! He will double in size and weight in the first year alone. Mothers are very loving and caring with their offsprings. Their huge pectoral fins, used as tactile organs, play an important role in the mother/calf relationship. Females give birth to only one baby at a time and take care of their young for a full year. Since gestation is also almost a year (11 - 11.5 months), they generally give birth every 2 to 3 years.

Courtship groups in Bay of Banderas

One of the most spectacular behavior is that of courtship. This only occurs in their mating grounds and since the Bay of Banderas is one of their elected areas for reproduction, we have the precious opportunity to be able to study this particular behavior further, right here at home.


This aggressive battle for a single female is most impressive. It may involve 2 or up to 18 or more whales ferociously fighting for that one female heading the group. Often, one male has already been able to position himself next to the female. Being next to the female is where they want to be, so all the other whales are trying to move up to the front to dislodge their competitor. This is done by pushing and shoving, hitting eachother with their barnacle ladden fins and tails. They may also do what we call a head slap which means one whale will elevate his head slightly above the water to then forcefully shove it back down over the back of another whale. Since their chins are also usually full of sharp barnacles, they can cut eachother pretty badly at times. Some smaller or weaker whales will leave the group quite early in this battle while other may arrive later, fresh and strong and begin to fight their way up. The idea is that only the strongest male will remain til the end and will get the chance to reproduce with the female. This battle may last less than one hour or may go on for hours.


One way of knowing if you are witnessing a courtship group is to count the whales that are all in one group, to watch their swimming pattern and estimate their speed. During a courtship battle, the female that leads will swim much faster than usual and change direction quite often. They will also remain closer to the surface and breathe more often as they are exerting alot of energy during this time and have a greater need for oxygen. The surface waters may appear to be boiling; this occurs because of the activity below, the splashing caused by the tails and fins and the air that is occasionnally released by males. Nasty scars are the result of repeated participation in such groups. This is why some have the misguided tendency of saying that a whale with many scars on his back is a male. But let it be known that scientifically, only a female accompanied by her calf or a singing whale can be positively identified for sex, unless you are dealing with a very well known whale, one who has been studied over many years time and has since been identified as male or female.


Feeding techniques


The Humpback whale uses different techniques in order to feed. They are considered "gulpers" as all rorquals are. This, because of their numerous throat grooves that expand when taking huge gulps of food ladden water. With their tongues, they then push the water out and only the food remains.


Four different styles of feeding have been observed:


This involves approaching the food from the bottom or the side while the mouth is wide open.


In this case, they use their long pectoral fins to herd all the food in front of them.


In making use of their tails, a powerful slash brings the food to the front of the whale.


Bubble netting:
This is the most impressive of all techniques and leaves one to ponder on the level of intelligence and social structure of these incredible whales.


This technique may involve one single individual or up to 16 whales. While under the water, they form a circle and swim one behing the other while releasing air creating a wall of bubbles that trap food in the center as efficiently as a fisherman's net. The leader then emits a high piercing sound. This stuns the fish and forces them to gather in an even smaller bunch at the center. This is also a signal to all the other whales that it's time to surface, all at the same time, from the bottom up to gulp all the food collected through this technique. Amazing!


And if this isn't incredible enough, it has been shown, through many years of study, that each time a particular bubble net is formed, it includes the same individuals and they position themselves at their same designated positions. Somewhat like us at the diner table, we all have our own seats and so do they! Things that make you go Hmmmmmm....


Please help us save this awesome animal from extinction


The whale watching industry has now replaced whaling. In many areas it plays a crucial role for the local economy. This should be a good thing, but one needs to be very careful when choosing their whale watching tour provider. Whale watching, if improperly conducted, can also be detrimental to the survival of the whales.


I have seen whales with nasty lacerations from boat propellers; some don't survive the injuries. I have seen a baby whale crazily leaping repeatedly out of the water in a desperate attempt to tell his mother that he couldn't keep up as she was swimming too fast while trying to evade too many boats that were well inside the legal distance for whale watching. The spectators of these boats were all applauding as if this was the greatest show they had ever seen, completely oblivious to the reality of the fear they were instilling on these beautiful creatures.


This doesn't have to happen. If you care about the survival of these wonderful creatures, here are a few questions you can ask the company you plan on calling on. This will help you evaluate the level of professionalism and integrity of the company in regards to conservation of this species.


- Do they have the proper accreditation and permits for the activity in question from the Secretary of Tourism? Do they provide experienced or trained guides that are aware of the regulations and abide by them?

Because the accredited companies incur a cost related to their permits, they will usually charge more than those that don't.



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