Humpback Whale Migration Update: March 29, 2000
Today's Report Includes:
Greetings from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
I'm Anne Smrcina, the education coordinator of the sanctuary and your humpback whale correspondent with an update for you. Humpback whales in the northern hemisphere are still hanging around their winter calving-breeding grounds although it is believed that the move northward has started for some of them.
Northern Hemisphere Humpbacks Begin Migrating!
Some whales head to the Gulf of Maine which includes Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Others head to feeding grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or the coastal regions around Newfoundland and Labrador, or as far north as southwestern Greenland, and the Iceland-Denmark Strait.
The other populations of humpbacks that move along the coast of North America have their preferred travel destinations as well. The eastern Pacific whales travel from Central America to southern Alaska. Also headed for Alaska are the central Pacific population that winters among the Hawaiian Islands.
"Project Ocean" Count Really Counts!
I spoke to members of the staff of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary who report that they are still seeing quite a few whales. They can view them right from shore! The first whales came in to the area in November, with numbers peaking in late January-early February. Just a few weeks ago (Feb. 26), Project Ocean Count, an annual volunteer program to count whales around the island of Oahu, recorded over 300 whales during a designated 3-hour period. This was despite blustery conditions! This year's tally is consistent with several other studies that show the population of humpbacks is steadily increasing in the waters around the islands of Hawaii.
Whales Have Preferences, Too
In addition to providing clues to population levels, Ocean Count results will help scientists to determine the distribution and activity patterns of whales. It appears that the whales seen to prefer the southeast and northwest corners of the island, as well as a strip of the northern shore from Sunset Beach to Pua'ena Point.
Get Out Your Maps of Hawaii and see if you can answer:
Identification From the Air, Or From the Water?
Now back to our North Atlantic population. Researchers who have been making aerial flights over Cape Cod Bay for right whale studies have also been noticing occasional humpbacks over the past few weeks. During these aerial patrols, the researchers take photographs of the right whales in order to identify the individual animals. (They also record the position of the animals to alert ships of the whales' locations, so that the ships can make appropriate changes of course to avoid hitting these critically endangered animals - there are only 300 of them left in the entire North Atlantic.)
Every Whale Needs a Name
Also this past week (Sat. March 25) was the annual Whale Naming session sponsored by the Cetacean Research Unit, the Center for Coastal Studies and the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
Photographs of the new whales sighted in 1999 (new calves or juvenile and adult whales that had not been seen before) are each given a name, based on distinctive scars
and markings that could be easily identified in the field:
A Whale's Tail - Whales Wear Their Stories on Their Flukes
Pigment Patterns are a Springboard to Creative Names
After the first year or so of life, patterns are generally constant and long-lasting, so individual whales can be recognized for many years from photographs of the fluke pigmentation and trailing edges. During the session researchers were looking for names that described distinctive scars and markings that could be easily identified in the field.
Here are some of their choices:
Other basic rules of whale naming are:
Fifty Five Humpbacks Named
This year some 55 whales were named during the afternoon-long session. By using these more familiar names rather than catalog code numbers, researchers can more easily distinguish the whales as they work with the public on the whale watch vessels and with their peers during research studies.
That's all for this report. This is Anne Smrcina, education coordinator for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, signing off. I'll be filing my next report on April 12.
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The Next Humpback Whale Migration Update will Be Posted on April 12, 2000
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