Native Village
Youth and Education news
November 1, 2010 Volume

Whale of a Trip: Humpback makes record migration
Condensed by Native Village


England:  It remains a mystery why a female humpback whale swam 6,200 miles from Brazil to Madagascar. Researchers believe it's the longest single trip ever undertaken by a mammal humans excluded.

Humpbacks normally migrate along a north-to-south axis to feed and mate. But this one -- affectionately called AHWC No. 1363 -- checked out a new continent thousands of miles to the east.

Peter Stevick says she wasn't motivated by love, because whales meet their partners at breeding sites. "It may be that this is an extreme example of exploration," the marine ecologist said. "Or it could be that the animal got very lost."

Humpbacks are careful commuters. The take the same yearly trip from cold water feeding grounds to warmer waters where they mingle and mate. The feeding and breeding spots sometimes vary, but their commute doesn't change much.

But swapping a breeding ground in Brazil for one in Madagascar? It was unheard of.

"That's almost ... a quarter of the way around the globe," Stevick said. "Not only is this an exception, but it's a really remarkable exception at that."

Humpback whales are powerful swimmers. The 80,000 pound mammals usually swim 5,000 miles from the North Atlantic and the Antarctic to temperate areas around the equator. They're known for their eerie songs which travel huge distances underwater. This language, however, remains another mystery.

Humpbacks are also cherished by whale-watchers for their spectacular out-of-the-water jumps, called breaching.

Humpback whales were nearly hunted to extinction in the mid-20th century. Their recovery has been uneven, and scientists are trying to understand why. Stevick and other experts are searching the Web for photos taken by tourists and whale-watchers. They hope to build a worldwide catalog of humpback whales to help them track populations and where they travel.

In fact, it was by browsing the Web that one scientist found a photo of AHWC No. 1363. It was taken in 1999 by a tourist off the coast of Madagascar. Scientists then matched this photo with the picture of the same whale taken two years earlier near Brazil's coast.

So how did Stevick and his colleagues recognize both photos were of the same whale? Carole Carlson, Stevick's colleague, said the key to identifying humpback whales is in their tails. Humpbacks have big tail fins called "flukes," which are spotted and ridged. Carlson compared them to "huge fingerprints."]

Stevick elaborated: "There's an enormous amount of information in those natural markings. There's the basic underlying pattern of the black and white pigment on it, numerous scars across the tail, and the edge is very jagged. Each of those things provides a piece of information."

"The likelihood that two animals would have every single one of those things identical would be vanishingly small," said Simon Ingram from the University of Plymouth in England. He said photo identification was a "very, very powerful technique."

But Ingram was less excited by the length of the whale's trip than its destination.

"To my mind, the remarkable thing isn't the distance but the difference," he said.  Whale communities were sometimes thought of as discrete and seldom mixing. This shows that's not always the case, he said.

As to why the whale went the way it did, Ingram said that, "the fact is, we just don't know. You can track them, but you don't know what's motivating them."

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