Whale of a Trip: Humpback makes
Condensed by Native Village
It remains a mystery why a female
humpback whale swam
6,200 miles from
Brazil to Madagascar. Researchers believe
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
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
Humpbacks are careful commuters.
The take the same yearly trip from
cold water feeding grounds to warmer
they mingle and mate. The feeding and
breeding spots sometimes vary, but
their commute doesn't
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
Humpback whales are powerful
swimmers. The 80,000 pound mammals
usually swim 5,000 miles from the
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
Humpbacks are also cherished by
whale-watchers for their spectacular
out-of-the-water jumps, called
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
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
Humpbacks have big tail fins called
"flukes," which are spotted and
ridged. Carlson compared them to
Stevick elaborated: "There's an
enormous amount of information in
those natural markings. There's the
underlying pattern of the
black and white pigment on it,
numerous scars across the tail,
the edge is very jagged. Each of
those things provides a piece of
"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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