Competitive pods of Humpback Whales

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is 1,218 nautical square miles of protected waters surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands where an estimated 15,000 Humpback Whales from Alaska come to give birth and mate (http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/management/welcome.html). Recently I was part of a research cruise focusing on competitive pods of Humpback Whales, which are pods of a single male or many formed around a single female who has already given birth or did not have a calf this year and these males compete for the rights to mate with the female. Though Humpback Whales seem like gentle giants when it comes to mating rights over a female these whales can be brutal in their “fighting”. During the cruise our largest competitive pod consisted of one female and 13 males. The female will swim wherever she wants and a male will follow close behind her who is called the primary escort who will do everything he can to denture other males away from “his” female. The males will make loud threatening sounds and blow bubble nets around the female so other males cannot see her and echolocation cannot pass through the water air interface creating an invisible blanket around the female. If the pod gets really heated males will lunge out of the water into each other and block each other underwater with their bodies. Nobody actually knows when mating occurs and it has never been documented, so along with the behavioral study on this research cruise there was also a film crew from National Geographic who was focusing on competitive pods and hoping for the impossible task of capturing mating on film for a special on Humpback Whales that will air next fall. The film crew had two high speed high definition cameras onboard, one in air and one in water. The cameras were able to capture a three second breach of a whale at 400 frames per second, which takes 20 minutes to watch. Some really amazing stuff! Sadly mating was not seen, but some interesting clues and footage was captured which suggests some theories into who these animals breed, none of which can be revealed by me at this point. Overall this was a great experience and opportunity to work in the field and learn more about these truly amazing animals!

- Taylor Shedd

 

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