Humpback Humpback
Today's News Report Your Sightings How to Use Journey North Search Journey North

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!

Migration Route of Atlantic Humpback Whales
Map courtesy of

In the northern hemisphere there are several humpback whale populations, each of which takes a highly specific migration route. The western North Atlantic population, which winters in the Caribbean, primarily around the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, separates into "feeding groups" with distinct destinations in mind as it moves north.
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:

Challenge Question #7:
"Why do you think the humpbacks prefer these particular areas of the Oahu coastline? (Hint: you may want to see if you can get a topographic/bathymetric map of the area around the island.)"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

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.)

Challenge Question #8:
Researchers photograph right whales from the air for identification purposes, but not humpbacks. Why is that?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

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:
  • black and white patterns on their flukes
  • distinctive scars on their bodies
  • shape of the dorsal fin
  • saw-toothed pattern on the trailing edge of the tail.

A Whale's Tail - Whales Wear Their Stories on Their Flukes

Photo courtesy of
Thomas L. Conlin

According to "A Field Guide to Whales, Porpoises and Seals from Cape Cod to Newfoundland," a book by Katona, Rough and Richardson (an excellent book for anyone interested in the wide variety of species in the North Atlantic), the fluke pigmentation may be influenced by inheritance from the parents. They report that pigmentation "varies among individuals from all black to all white, with every grade in between. Superimposed on the basic pattern are scars from injuries acquired during fights with other individuals, attacks by killer whales or sharks, or attachment of parasites such as barnacles, parasitic copepods, lampreys, or others. Injuries to white skin cause black scars and vice versa.

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:
  • One whale was named "Dice" because of two distinct black spots that looked like the pattern on a die.
  • Another was named "Soot" because of its dark gray coloration.
  • Another was named "Eruption" due to the exploding volcano pattern that filled the central part of the tail and spread out over both flukes.

Other basic rules of whale naming are:

  • Do not use any human names, such as Mike or Sue.
  • Do not name any whale after any human [An exception came this year when the group voted to honor the memory of Aaron Avellar, who along with his father started the first whale watching operation off the east coast. They were the first to name the whales in this area (including "Salt" and "Pepper") The group agreed to name Salt's new calf after Avellar.].
  • Don't pick names that could be easily misinterpreted when said over faulty public address systems on board whale watching boats; and keep names to one word (in most cases).

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.

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Question:

1. Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #7 (or #8).
3. In the body of your message, answer the question above.

The Next Humpback Whale Migration Update will Be Posted on April 12, 2000

Copyright 2000 Journey North. All Rights Reserved. Please send all questions, comments, and suggestions to our feedback form

Today's News Today's News Report Your Sightings How to Use Journey North Search Journey North