Category

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale Underwater Bubble Streaming Among Rowdy Groups in Hawaii

Hawaii, Humpback Whale

During the years I worked for Dan Salden and Hawaii Whale Research Foundation studying humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Hawaii, we usually looked for surface active groups (“rowdy groups“) when possible, since these groups offered the greatest potential for collecting the social affiliation information that was the focus of Dan’s decades of research on humpback whales. Bubble blasts and bubble streaming were often a part of the rowdy group’s activities, by one or several whales. We would spend time photographing as many fluke IDs as we could, to identify which whales were in the group, as well as noting those animals that would depart or join during the time we were observing them. Eventually, if conditions were right, we would enter the water to observe them below the surface. The goal at this point was to determine the roles that the individual whales had: primary escort, challenging escorts, focal female, peripheral individuals, etc. Often these roles are clear from topside views, but not always, so getting in the water is important. Gradually, over years of observation, we accumulated a lot of interesting, unique video of active groups, including the bubble streaming that would occur in these groups. I had opportunities to shoot still photographs of the bubble streaming too. Below are some of my favorite images of humpback whales from my time in Hawaii. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater.  The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims behind a mother and calf.  The bubble curtain may be meant as warning or visual obstruction to other nearby male whales interested in the mother, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater near mother and calf. The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims behind a mother and calf. The bubble curtain may be meant as warning or visual obstruction to other nearby male whales interested in the mother.
Image ID: 05928
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater.  The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims behind a female (left) during a competitive group.  The bubble curtain may be meant as warning or visual obstruction to other male whales interested in the mother, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater.
Image ID: 02828
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Primary escort male humpback whale bubble streaming during competitive group socializing.  This primary escort is swimming behind a female. The bubble curtain may be a form of intimidation towards other male escorts that are interested in the female, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Primary escort male humpback whale bubble streaming during competitive group socializing. This primary escort is swimming behind a female.
Image ID: 04432
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater.  The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims behind a mother and calf (barely seen in the distance), Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater. The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims behind a mother and calf (barely seen in the distance).
Image ID: 04434
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater.  The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims behind a female during competitive group activities.  The bubble curtain may be meant as warning or visual obstruction to other nearby male whales interested in the female, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater. The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims behind a female during competitive group activities.
Image ID: 04444
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater.  The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims behind a mother and calf.  The bubble curtain may be meant as warning or visual obstruction to other nearby male whales interested in the mother, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater.
Image ID: 05925
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Male North Pacific humpback whale streams a trail of bubbles.  The primary male escort whale (center) creates a curtain of bubbles underwater as it swims behind a female (right), with other challenging males trailing behind in a competitive group.  The bubbles may be a form of intimidation from the primary escort towards the challenging escorts, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Male North Pacific humpback whale streams a trail of bubbles. The primary male escort whale (center) creates a curtain of bubbles underwater as it swims behind a female (right), with other challenging males trailing behind in a competitive group.
Image ID: 05968
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Adult male north Pacific humpback whale bubble streaming underwater in the midst of a competitive group.   The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims closely behind a female, .  The bubble curtain may be meant as warning or visual obstruction to other nearby males interested in the female, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Adult male north Pacific humpback whale bubble streaming underwater in the midst of a competitive group. The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims closely behind a female.
Image ID: 06001
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Adult male north Pacific humpback whale bubble streaming underwater in the midst of a competitive group.   The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims closely behind a female, .  The bubble curtain may be meant as warning or visual obstruction to other nearby males interested in the female, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Adult male north Pacific humpback whale bubble streaming underwater in the midst of a competitive group.
Image ID: 06037
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater.  The male escort humpback whale seen here is emitting a curtain of bubbles as it swims behind a female (left) during a competitive group.  The bubble curtain may be meant as warning or visual obstruction to other male whales interested in the mother, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Adult male humpback whale bubble streaming underwater.
Image ID: 02826
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

NOTE: These photographs were taken during Hawaii Whale Research Foundation research activities conducted under NOAA/NMFS and State of Hawaii scientific research permits.

Whale Triple Header: Blue Whales, Humpback Whales, Fin Whales, Del Mar, California

Blue Whale, Humpback Whale

GREAT WHALE TRIPLEHEADER. What’s that you say? Read on…

This is a photograph of a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) performing a peduncle throw (or “tail throw”, or “tail lob”). The man who taught me most of what I know about whales, friend and whale researcher Dr. Dan Salden, often referred to this behavior as a “peduncle throw” and that is the term I prefer to use but whale watching captains will call it all sorts of names. The whale pivots around its long pectoral fins, dips its rostrum (head) down and violently catapults its peduncle and fluke high out the water, throwing a mighty cascade of spray throughout the air. What a sight! I remember my first season working with Dan’s whale research team, seeing this behavior for the first time, and having him explain to me what he thought might be going on underwater that would motivate the whale to do such a thing. In this case the whale was apparently alone and had been doing it for some time. We saw the splashing from over a mile away and drove over to take a closer look. I never did see any other animals in the vicinity of this whale and could not figure out why it was breaching, peduncle throwing and tail slapping.

A humpback whale raises it fluke out of the water, the coast of Del Mar and La Jolla is visible in the distance, Megaptera novaeangliae

A humpback whale raises it fluke out of the water, the coast of Del Mar and La Jolla is visible in the distance.
Image ID: 27142
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Del Mar, California, USA

The campus of UCSD is seen high on the bluffs in the distance. When I was in college I would to gaze out the windows of those building during class, staring at the ocean and hang gliders that would fly past. The humpback remained surface active for a while, and later transitioned to fluke slapping and inverted tail lobs:

A humpback whale raises it fluke out of the water, the coast of Del Mar and La Jolla is visible in the distance, Megaptera novaeangliae

A humpback whale raises it fluke out of the water, the coast of Del Mar and La Jolla is visible in the distance.
Image ID: 27130
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Del Mar, California, USA

This humpback was just part of a rare GREAT WHALE TRIPLEHEADER, in which we shot photographs underwater of three different species of great whales: blue whales, humpback whales and fin whales.

It was quite a day to say the least. Here are a few of the non-humpbacks we saw that day. Check out the fin whale, his buddy can be seen in the distance just beyond him, identifiable by the lightly colored lower right side jaw that is characteristic of fin whales. Also check out the bizarre fluke on this blue whale, with the bluffs of Del Mar in the distance.

Fin whale underwater. The fin whale is the second longest and sixth most massive animal ever, reaching lengths of 88 feet, Balaenoptera physalus

Fin whale underwater. The fin whale is the second longest and sixth most massive animal ever, reaching lengths of 88 feet.
Image ID: 27597
Species: Fin whale, Balaenoptera physalus

Blue whale fluking up (raising its tail) before a dive to forage for krill, La Jolla, California

Blue whale fluking up (raising its tail) before a dive to forage for krill.
Image ID: 27119
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Blue whale fluking up (raising its tail) before a dive to forage for krill, La Jolla, California

Blue whale fluking up (raising its tail) before a dive to forage for krill.
Image ID: 27122
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Fin whale underwater. The fin whale is the second longest and sixth most massive animal ever, reaching lengths of 88 feet, Balaenoptera physalus

Fin whale underwater. The fin whale is the second longest and sixth most massive animal ever, reaching lengths of 88 feet.
Image ID: 27594
Species: Fin whale, Balaenoptera physalus

We finished the day with a great sunset of Mount Soledad on our way back to Mission Bay. One of those “top 10 days”.

Panorama of La Jolla, with Mount Soledad aglow at sunset, viewed from the Pacific Ocean offshore of San Diego

Panorama of La Jolla, with Mount Soledad aglow at sunset, viewed from the Pacific Ocean offshore of San Diego.
Image ID: 27086
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Humpback Whale Breaching Near San Diego

Humpback Whale

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are found throughout the worlds oceans, but seeing them near San Diego is somewhat unusual. Conventional wisdom has it that humpback whales in California are most often seen in the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara, as well as the central coast near Monterey Bay. However, if you put in enough time on the ocean anywhere in California, you will eventually see a humpback whale. Friend and fellow photographer Mike Johnson and I had a rare treat recently: a young humpback whale that was surface active for about an hour. It breached repeatedly, including performing head slaps, one peduncle throw, quite a bit of pectoral fin slapping and occasional trumpeting (deep rumbling sounds made while the whale is exhaling, or blowing, while at the surface between dives). You will notice live barnacles hanging from the whales chin when it breaches. These barnacles will die off when the whale reaches warm winter waters, and be reacquired when it returns to colder northern climes. Here are some fun photos from that hour.

Humpback Whale Fluke ID Identification Photos

Humpback Whale

It has been 10+ years since I last worked at making fluke ID photos, but it’s just like riding a bike and one never forgets and I had some success at it yesterday. What is a “fluke ID photo” you ask? The underside (ventral surface) of the fluke (tail) of some species of whales — including most notably humpback whales — typically has permanent visible characteristics, such as light or dark patches, scratches, dots, scars, etc. that allow an individual whale to be identified. Whale researchers, including Dan Salden of Hawaii Whale Research Foundation with whom I worked from some years, maintain growing catalogs of humpback whale fluke ID photographs, allowing them to gain an understanding of where individual whales have been over time and, by extension, develop insight into the population as a whole.

Yesterday I went on a whale watching trip in the Santa Barbara Channel. This is a good time of year to see whales along California as they are moving generally northward along the coast and foraging for krill and schools of small fish. The trip was organized by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society using the boat “Condor Express”. We saw a few dozen humpback whales and a half dozen blue whales, and the seas were nice and flat. The weather was heavily overcast which is terrible for photography, so I resigned myself to use the longest lens I had and focus on practicing making fluke ID photos. I made clean fluke ID photos of 16 different humpback whales, so all I can say for certain is that there were at least 16 humpbacks that we saw. Some on the boat commented that we saw many more humpbacks than that, but looking closely at the fluke ID photos (as well as dorsal fins, which are good secondary ID devices) along with the corresponding times at which they were taken I figure that I personally saw about 18-22 humpbacks. It’s tough to know for sure when 80% or more of the animal is underwater 90% of the time. I totally made up those percentages by the way.

Here are the 16 humpback whales that gave it up for me on this trip: http://www.oceanlight.com/log/img/humpback-whale-fluke-id-identification-photos/ along with a few select ones below.


Humpback Whales in the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

Antarctica, Humpback Whale, Southern Ocean

As we sailed north from Neko Harbor to the South Shetland Islands, we came upon a large assemblage of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) feeding in the Gerlache Strait. They were on krill, as evidenced by the color of their waste, but the water was too rough to make out patches or balls of the invertebrate stuff. At one point Jim estimated we had seen over 45 humpbacks in the area about 2 miles long by half the width of the strait. One group of five whale provided some excellent examples of surface lunge feeding. While not the coordinated bubble-net feeding that is normally associated with Alaskan humpback whales, the behavior of these whales did include some bubble displays.

Humpback whale lunge feeding on Antarctic krill, with mouth open and baleen visible.  The humbpack's throat grooves are seen as its pleated throat becomes fully distended as the whale fills its mouth with krill and water.  The water will be pushed out, while the baleen strains and retains the small krill, Megaptera novaeangliae, Gerlache Strait

Humpback whale lunge feeding on Antarctic krill, with mouth open and baleen visible. The humbpack’s throat grooves are seen as its pleated throat becomes fully distended as the whale fills its mouth with krill and water. The water will be pushed out, while the baleen strains and retains the small krill.
Image ID: 25648
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Gerlache Strait, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Humpback whale lunge feeding on Antarctic krill, with mouth open and baleen visible.  The humbpack's pink throat grooves are seen as its pleated throat becomes fully distended as the whale fills its mouth with krill and water.  The water will be pushed out, while the baleen strains and retains the small krill, Megaptera novaeangliae, Gerlache Strait

Humpback whale lunge feeding on Antarctic krill, with mouth open and baleen visible. The humbpack’s pink throat grooves are seen as its pleated throat becomes fully distended as the whale fills its mouth with krill and water. The water will be pushed out, while the baleen strains and retains the small krill.
Image ID: 25649
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Gerlache Strait, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

In fact, it was easy to know when the group of five was about the surface since one of the five predictably produced a subsurface blast of air a few seconds before surfacing. With a little practice it was possible to put the camera near the spot at which the whales would surface and then it was a matter of luck, firing the frames as quickly as possible and hoping the whales would surface with open mouth and full, pleated throat in the frame. We watched the whales until at least 10:30pm, when I finally got a shot of them coming toward the boat. One shot in particular illustrates the baleen, tongue and fully-engorged throat of a krill-feeding humpback. It would have been inconceivable to get this image 10 years ago when I was shooting film, at such a late hour in dim, overcast light, but the modern cameras allow for this sort of photo with relative ease. ISO 1600, lens wide open at f/4, hand-holding a stabilized 500mm lens on a rocking boat at only 1/500, and yet three of the four frames of that sequence are sufficiently sharp for publication. Wonders never cease. About 11pm we finally leave the whales and continue north through the Gerlache Strait, leaving the Antarctic Peninsula in our wake about dawn. Alas, Antarctica is now just a memory.

Scenery in Gerlache Strai.  Clouds, mountains, snow, and ocean, at sunset in the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

Scenery in Gerlache Strai. Clouds, mountains, snow, and ocean, at sunset in the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica.
Image ID: 25680
Location: Gerlache Strait, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Next: Hannah Point, Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands
Previous: Neko Harbor, Antarctica
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
All “Southern Ocean” entries

Neko Harbor, Antarctica

Antarctica, Humpback Whale, Southern Ocean

Photos of Neko Harbor, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

I awoke this morning to find us in the calm anchorage of Paradise Bay. The water was glass, and bergs were slowly drifting by the boat, riding tidal currents. I set up a time lapse sequence on the stern of the boat and went below for breakfast. An hour later the sequence was finished, and it turned out to be pretty good when viewed in HD. The gentle swing of the boat on its anchor combined nicely with the slow movement of the berg and the passing clouds. Soon after breakfast we motored for about an hour to Neko Harbor, passing a smaller ship (with 250 passengers, crowded!) on our way into Neko Harbor. What a spectacular place. This was one of my favorite spots on the entire peninsula because we finally had a full day of encounters with mammals. (I had had my fill of penguins well before this morning). Light rain and some snow eventually cleared to broken sunshine lighting up the peaks that tower about the ice-filled bay. Two glaciers calved large bergs periodically, including a large snow avalance that blew apart into a cloud of snow late in the afternoon.

A glacier fractures and cracks, as the leading of a glacier fractures and cracks as it reaches the ocean.  The pieces will float away to become icebergs, Neko Harbor

A glacier fractures and cracks, as the leading of a glacier fractures and cracks as it reaches the ocean. The pieces will float away to become icebergs.
Image ID: 25654
Location: Neko Harbor, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

On my morning zodiac outing, Al picked out some good ice for us to inspect, and Patrick took us in for a close look. Huge columns of fractured blue ice defined the leading edge of a glacier. We took a lot of pictures of those formations, and also simply motored by them admiring them. Once back on the big boat for lunch I learned that another group was blessed with an inquisitive minke whale which stayed right next to their zodiac for 90 minutes, spyhopping and circling the 9 lucky viewers. One of the group mentioned to me, in a somewhat reverential tone, that it was a “life moment” for her. I recall some of my earliest, best encounters with whales at close range, and I understand what she must have felt. Good for them. Throughout the day most of the us were fortunate to see scattered crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophagus), Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) and leopard seals resting on bergs, along with an occasional minke whale and many good views of humpback whales. I managed to take a few nice photos of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) fluking up in front of ice, a shot which I had tried for years before in Alaska with no luck. At 4:30pm it was time to wrap it up and head out, too soon to leave Neko Harbor but we had to begin the long sail north through the Gerlach Strait and on to Hannah Point.

Southern humpback whale in Antarctica, with significant diatomaceous growth (brown) on the underside of its fluke, lifting its fluke before diving in Neko Harbor, Antarctica, Megaptera novaeangliae

Southern humpback whale in Antarctica, with significant diatomaceous growth (brown) on the underside of its fluke, lifting its fluke before diving in Neko Harbor, Antarctica.
Image ID: 25647
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Neko Harbor, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

A crabeater seal, hauled out on pack ice to rest.  Crabeater seals reach 2m and 200kg in size, with females being slightly larger than males.  Crabeaters are the most abundant species of seal in the world, with as many as 75 million individuals.  Despite its name, 80% the crabeater seal's diet consists of Antarctic krill.  They have specially adapted teeth to strain the small krill from the water, Lobodon carcinophagus, Neko Harbor

A crabeater seal, hauled out on pack ice to rest. Crabeater seals reach 2m and 200kg in size, with females being slightly larger than males. Crabeaters are the most abundant species of seal in the world, with as many as 75 million individuals. Despite its name, 80% the crabeater seal’s diet consists of Antarctic krill. They have specially adapted teeth to strain the small krill from the water.
Image ID: 25650
Species: Crabeater seal, Lobodon carcinophagus
Location: Neko Harbor, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Next: Humpback whales in the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica
Previous: Cloudy Morning in Paradise Bay, Antarctica
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
All “Southern Ocean” entries

Cierva Cove, Antarctica

Antarctica, Humpback Whale, Southern Ocean

Photos of Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

We begin our morning today in Cierva Cove, directly south from yesterday’s landing at Bailey Head on Deception Island. Cierva Cove is said to be a good location to see marine mammals. However, this morning the skies are dark and the air is cold. Cierva Cove is choked with brash ice, and light rain has been falling on and off all morning. Some choose to remain aboard the Polar Star as it is anchored just offshore of the cove, enjoying coffee in the warm lounge on the top deck and watching the morning pass through the large windows. Not to be put off by a little weather, most of the folks on board hop in zodiacs and set off for some cruising and sightseeing amid the ice in Cierva Cove.

Brash ice and pack ice in Antarctica.  Brash ices fills the ocean waters of Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula.  The ice is a mix of sea ice that has floated near shore on the tide and chunks of ice that have fallen into the water from nearby land-bound glaciers

Brash ice and pack ice in Antarctica. Brash ices fills the ocean waters of Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula. The ice is a mix of sea ice that has floated near shore on the tide and chunks of ice that have fallen into the water from nearby land-bound glaciers.
Image ID: 25531
Location: Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Antarctic icebergs, sculpted by ocean tides into fantastic shapes, Cierva Cove

Antarctic icebergs, sculpted by ocean tides into fantastic shapes.
Image ID: 25502
Location: Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Moving about through the ice maze proves to be a bit difficult in the zodiacs and we take it slow, choosing our route carefully. Currents stir the waters in the cove, and the ice is constantly moving albeit slowly. At times, the narrow channels we use close soon after we pass through so that we cannot return the way we came, so we just proceed onward. It is fun going. There are three species of pinniped to be seen in Cierva Cove: leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), Weddell seal (Leptonychotes Weddellii) and Crabeater seal (Lobodon carcinophagus), and soon we have seen them all. Of the three, the Weddell seals are my favorite, exhibiting beautiful spotted coats more attractive than any other seal species I have seen. It is difficult to keep the cameras dry as rain continues to fall, so I am glad I have weather covers for my gear.

Weddell seal in Antarctica.  The Weddell seal reaches sizes of 3m and 600 kg, and feeds on a variety of fish, krill, squid, cephalopods, crustaceans and penguins, Leptonychotes weddellii, Cierva Cove

Weddell seal in Antarctica. The Weddell seal reaches sizes of 3m and 600 kg, and feeds on a variety of fish, krill, squid, cephalopods, crustaceans and penguins.
Image ID: 25501
Species: Weddell seal, Leptonychotes weddellii
Location: Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

A leopard seal in Antarctica.  The leopard seal is a large predatory seal, up to 1300 lb and 11 ft in length, feeding on krill, squid, fish, various penguin species and other seabirds and occasionally, other pinnipeds, Hydrurga leptonyx, Cierva Cove

A leopard seal in Antarctica. The leopard seal is a large predatory seal, up to 1300 lb and 11 ft in length, feeding on krill, squid, fish, various penguin species and other seabirds and occasionally, other pinnipeds.
Image ID: 25526
Species: Leopard seal, Hydrurga leptonyx
Location: Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Three glaciers flow into Cierva Cove, plowing down from the inland slopes above us with towering walls of ice leading the way. These glaciers shed enormous blocks of blue ice, frozen floating progeny that will soon drift away from the cove and disperse into the ocean. Occasionally we see ice break from the face of the glacier and fall, calving with loud cracking sounds that echo around the cove. When the blocks plunge into the water they create long rolling swells that generate low rumbling sounds as the bergs around us bump together. Argentina’s Primavera Research Station is located on an exposed rocky peninsula nearby, a group of small red buildings and several radio antennae. Given the weather we have today, the station looks like a very cold workplace indeed.

Primavera Base, (Argentina) on the slopes above Cierva Cove, Antarctica

Primavera Base, (Argentina) on the slopes above Cierva Cove, Antarctica.
Image ID: 25556
Location: Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Zodiac cruising in Antarctica.  Tourists enjoy the pack ice and towering glaciers of Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula

Zodiac cruising in Antarctica. Tourists enjoy the pack ice and towering glaciers of Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Image ID: 25590
Location: Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Eventually we leave the thick brash ice and motor about in the open water a mile or so offshore, in hopes of seeing a whale. Indeed, we soon come across a few minke whales, fast and sleek. They seem inquisitive and swim near our zodiac a few times, then disappear with nary a clue as to where they have gone. Other zodiacs see minkes throughout the morning. Soon a small group of humpback whales are spotted. Doug Cheeseman, who is driving our zodiac this morning, has had years of experience boating near whales and does a great job of predicting where the humpbacks will surface. For 30 minutes or so the whales simply surface and sink back under. Eventually, however, they begin raising their flukes as they dive, providing the photographers on our inflatable with great ops. After watching the whales for a long time, everyone on the zodiac is eventually chilled to the core and we head back to the M/V Polar Star to warm up and move to the afternoon’s landing at Cuverville Island. This morning offered our best views of marine mammals on the trip so far.

Southern humpback whale in Antarctica, lifting its fluke (tail) before diving in Cierva Cove, Antarctica, Megaptera novaeangliae

Southern humpback whale in Antarctica, lifting its fluke (tail) before diving in Cierva Cove, Antarctica.
Image ID: 25518
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Cierva Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Next: Cuverville Island, Antarctica
Previous: Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
All “Southern Ocean” entries

Heat Run: Humpback Whale Behavior Photos

Hawaii, Humpback Whale, Icons, Ocean Realm

Humpback whale underwater photography. Originally titled “Heat Run”, this appeared in Ocean Realm Magazine in April 1995, the first of a series of articles I authored for Ocean Realm in the ’90s.

This blog post is now available as a downloadable PDF article.

Each winter North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) converge on Hawaii to calve, form consort pairs and eventually mate. These social activities often culminate in “heat runs”, exciting and only partly understood spectacles of competition unique among cetaceans. It should be pointed out that the term heat run is colloquial suggesting the female whale involved is “in heat” (estrous). In fact there is little direct evidence that estrous is occurring in these events. But since the behaviors involved are thought to be related to courtship and mating, and since heat run continues to be widely used (and not just in Hawaii), I have chosen to leave it in this account. If I were to write this today, I would probably elect to use “competitive group”, “rowdy group” or “surface active group”.


“We’re out of gear.” The props have stopped spinning and humpback pod 1994-181 has surfaced, heading directly toward our research boat. Slipping into the water I immediately sense their presence. An immense deep thrumming sound sets my hair on end, as if I were inside a huge cathedral organ. The mother-calf-escort trio appears 80 feet away and the male escort is singing, a behavior typically observed only in solitary resting males. As the escort glides below, the mother and calf come directly toward me while I hang motionless 15 feet deep. I am awestruck, alone with three enormous humpback whales, all of us breathholding in deep blue water. The mother brings her calf near to examine me, undoubtedly the first human it has seen. I must lift my legs to allow the mother’s 12 foot long pectoral fin to pass underneath. Her calf’s body coloration is just emerging and it is without significant diving ability, staying just below the surface and hugging closely to its mother but on my side, an indication of the mother’s acceptance of me. This calf is so close I could touch it! I take a few photos, recording the whales eyeballing of me as they pass. In contrast to the infant whale’s awkward swimming motions, the mother lifts her fluke in an easy kick, an uncommon opportunity for a tight underwater fluke shot as they move by.

North Pacific humpback whales, a mother and calf pair swim closely together just under the surface of the ocean.  The calf will remain with its mother for about a year, migrating from Hawaii to Alaska to feed on herring, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whales, a mother and calf pair swim closely together just under the surface of the ocean. The calf will remain with its mother for about a year, migrating from Hawaii to Alaska to feed on herring.
Image ID: 00140
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

Before losing interest and swimming off, pod 181 offered us four more close passes, enough to capture scientifically valuable video images and identifying photographs. In terms of information, this pod provided an ideal encounter. Photographs revealed the mother was previously seen in 1993 in the company of several identified males, one of which could be the father of this calf. This represents a rare potential escort-mother-calf link, a connection important to the study of the long-term social affiliation characteristics of humpback whales. In addition, the male currently escorting the mother in pod 181 may sire her next calf. Beyond the social affiliation implications, pod 181 also symbolized the assumed culmination of a winter social activity among humpbacks known in Hawaii as the heat run, a beautiful, violent and unique phenomenon believed instrumental in determining courtship and mating associations and ultimately resulting one year later in that most characteristic and endearing humpback group, the mother and calf.

Molokai and water pools, viewed from west Maui

Molokai and water pools, viewed from west Maui.
Image ID: 00253
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

Once a single land mass of four volcanoes, the islands of Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe now seem like an enormous hand sunken so only the palm and fingertips are visible. Wild and lonely Pacific waters swirl through these fingers and temporarily find calm in the wind lee of Maui, dominated by towering Haleakala volcano and the cloud-ringed West Maui mountains. In this lee, tucked tightly against the coast from Maalaea to Olowalu, humpback mothers regularly bring their new calves to swim in the shallow nearshore waters, to nurse and to gain strength for their coming journey to Alaska. Lanai also has a lee shore where, in addition to mothers and calves, subadult whales are often found socializing, singing and lamenting after being rudely “dropped off” by a mother who has gone to find this year’s mate. But away from shore, calm frequently gives way to weather as the trade winds funnel through the Pailolo channel and streak across Maui’s low-lying midlands into the four island basin, creating shifting windlines that can change glassy calm water into whitecapped swells within minutes. It is here, on the open water among volcanoes and clouds, wind and waves and blazing sun, that Dr. Dan Salden studies the Hawaiian humpback whale.

Humpback whales at the surface, volcano and clouds, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Humpback whales at the surface, volcano and clouds.
Image ID: 00425
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

Dr. Dan R. Salden steers our small zodiac towards a large pod of surface active whales, at least twelve in number, swimming quickly across the Auau channel. From the strength and frequency of the whales’ distant blows we had earlier determined, while still several miles away, that the animals were exerting themselves tremendously. Positioning the boat alongside and slightly behind the pod, we match speeds with them and begin observing their behavior. Over the past thirty-one years Dr. Salden has mastered the art of approaching humpbacks without disturbing them. When the lead whale blows and makes a shallow dive the rest of the pod follows. Underwater the whales slow, turn and move directly below us. As they return to the surface we find ourselves amid the pod with whales beside, ahead and underneath the boat. Two whales glide just yards below the keel, each almost twice as long as our skiff. One has ghostly white pectoral fins spanning 30 feet tip to tip. The whales are clearly aware of our proximity and make no overtures toward us, exhibiting exceptional body control as they repeatedly pass within feet of the hull while working amongst themselves to establish position. As whales surface to breathe and dive again, we situate ourselves to photograph identifying markings and scars found on the underside and trailing edge of their flukes. These photographs will be matched against the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation’s (HWRF) database of “fluke IDs” in order to establish individual histories and verify repeat sightings. Dan is now truly in his element, photographing new flukes and pleased to recognize animals from past encounters. Their sequential blows are heard over the boat engines, massive exhalations of breath mixed with atomized water and carrying a thick fishy smell. Dan points out the pod’s two focal animals immediately in front of us — the female seems to be dictating the direction of the pod’s travel while flanking her closely is the escort, a whale whose bloody head nodules and scarred, raw dorsal ridge attest to recent violent encounters.

Suddenly a challenging male rushes in from the side, lunging forward and out of the water, its head completely aloft. Crashing its chin down upon the back of the escort, this new whale tries to displace the escort. The challenge has been made, and a “heat run” has begun. Within seconds, the escort parries the challenger’s head lunge with a peduncle throw, a behavior as exciting to observe as a full breach. Converting his forward momentum into a crack-the-whip rotation, the escort pivots about his submerged head, thrusting his entire fluke and peduncle (the muscular rear portion of his torso) out of the water and laterally at the challenger. An opening behind the female forms as the fighting males move away from the rest of the pod. Before a lesser challenger can fill the gap, the female slows and waits for the escort to rejoin her. Whales begin trumpeting loudly as they surface to breathe, a series of rolling “harumph-umph-umph” sounds that may be attempts at intimidation or simply the result of strenuous exertion. Additional challengers draw in tightly behind the escort, determining among themselves who gets to make a new challenge when the current conflict is resolved. The escort repeatedly blocks the primary challenger, actually pushing him sideways across the surface, then quickly resumes his position beside and behind the female to await his adversary’s next move. Giving up after several failed attempts to displace the escort, the primary challenger breaks off from the pod and departs. Another whale in the pod, who has perhaps been waiting “its turn”, takes his place and the battle continues.

North Pacific humpback whale, escort in competitive group makes fast close pass, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whale, escort in competitive group makes fast close pass.
Image ID: 06057
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

The “heat run” is a setting for spectacular acrobatics and provides an opportunity to study the humpback courtship process. The focus of the run is usually an adult female although there are all-male surface active groups. Typically she is without calf and swimming at speed so that the males pursue quickly, close to the surface. As the season progresses and calves appear more frequently, we encounter runs in which the pace is slowed by a mother with her calf. (In 1993 we observed a surface active group that formed around a sleeping mother / calf pair.) Today, the female is without a calf and has allowed an adult male to accompany her. This escort flanks her continually hoping ultimately to mate with her, wary of others who wish to usurp his position. Staying ahead of the female and escort and careful to keep out of the fray are three subadult whales just a few years old, not challenging the escort but instead apparently just observing the adult’s behavior in anticipation of their own future roles one day.

Humpback whale dorsal fin damaged during competitive group socializing, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Humpback whale dorsal fin damaged during competitive group socializing.
Image ID: 04334
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

The escort’s principal concern is a lineup of challenging males spread out behind him. Each challenger may attempt to displace him from his position with the female. Challenges are an escalating series of maneuvers that may stop at intimidation or culminate in physical injury. On rare occasions Dr. Salden has observed cooperation among challengers, teaming up to defeat the escort. Lesser challengers often engage in side skirmishes among themselves away from the pod, perhaps to establish a pecking order. A successful challenger may become the new escort if the female is accepting and if he can resist further challenges. Determining the gender and roles of the female, escort and seasoned challengers in an active group is straightforward: unlike the smooth skin of females who do not battle, adult males who have accumulated the skill and strength to challenge are scarred and often display dorsal fins that are merely stumps, sheared off by a past opponent’s attack. The dorsal ridge (the backbone leading from the dorsal fin to the fluke) is usually carved with gouges, rips, and white scars, grim testaments to the effectiveness of a humpback whale’s barnacle-encrusted chin as a hammering weapon.

North Pacific humpback whale, adult male with bloody head nodules wounded from colliding with other escorts during competitive interactions, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whale, adult male with bloody head nodules wounded from colliding with other escorts during competitive interactions.
Image ID: 02152
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

Interpreting heat run events from a boat can be difficult, especially with a large pod. The role of animals not directly involved in the conflict is unclear, and the gender of younger whales cannot be determined from superficial scarring. The role of each challenger is fluid, with males jostling for optimal position relative to the female. Whales with white pectoral fins are the most distinguishable underwater, even when 50-80 feet deep. Some individuals have other distinguishing features, such as dorsal fins — hooked, pointed, stumped or gouged — that are visible whenever they break the surface. The rest are usually known only by their fluke patterns, any unusual scarring, or perhaps by their maintaining a constant position in the pod throughout the run.

Humpback whale fluking up, ventral aspect of fluke visible, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

Humpback whale fluking up, ventral aspect of fluke visible.
Image ID: 04150
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

When the whales have long down times we must enter the water with them to better witness how the skirmish is resolving itself. Allowed under HWRF’s research permit, underwater study offers opportunities to more fully assess the sex and social roles of key animals and to observe chance behaviors such as nursing and penile displays. (Although whales have internal genitalia, gender can be determined by observing the genital slit and surrounding features, located on the ventral peduncle anterior to the fluke.) Given a change in direction that results in the pod swimming toward the boat, Dan stops for us to enter before moving the boat out of the whales’ path. Only free diving equipment is used and special care is made to minimize water disturbance and to remain unobtrusive. Once the animals are in sight we swim parallel to them and do not dive below them unless they have already shown that they fully accept our presence in the water. For the fortunate few researchers allowed in the water these are often the most rewarding moments of our work, occasions to observe up to a dozen 40-ton whales at once, racing and jostling and flying by.

North Pacific humpback whales, socializing trio of adults, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whales, socializing trio of adults.
Image ID: 05933
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

Getting away from the departing boat’s prop wash is nerve-wracking — whales will be here in moments and I cannot see through the bubbles. Once into clear water I make out the female, leading the pod with four others some 50 feet behind her. Their sounds are a wild dissonance of low pitched calls quite different from the orderly singing of resting males. If they see me, as the female and two of the others do, the whales usually cruise by without changing their behavior. It is amazing to see them corkscrew in order to position both eyes for a stereoscopic view of me. The low contrast of grayish whale against blue water makes it difficult to see all the animals, especially some that pass behind or below. Battling whales that do not see me are a danger and I stay ready to move out of their path. The escort and primary challenger are now drawing near and are intent on one another, flukes pumping and heads driving furiously against each other. Diving, they leave a roiling footprint on the surface and pass within a body length of where I float. The escort has the advantage of bearing down on the challenger from above, pushing with his rostrum and using his pectoral fins to maintain position, while the challenger manages to twist and lash at the escort’s body with lateral fluke swipes. Although the combatants have not actively sought food since leaving Alaska in January, they are expending enormous amounts of energy. I feel insignificant in comparison. When they have faded from sight all that remains is a bubble trail that one whale left behind, a three hundred foot long contrail glistening in the sun, rising silently to the surface.

North Pacific humpback whale, male escort bubble streams alongside mother and calf, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whale, male escort bubble streams alongside mother and calf.
Image ID: 05926
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

Whales constantly enter and exit heat runs, some of which last an entire day. Distant animals may hear the activities and rush over to investigate. Defeated challengers and disinterested subadults often veer off and disaffiliate, perhaps later to breathhold (rest) or sing. On several occasions we observed two surface active pods cross paths. In the ensuing chaos whales shuffle between pods and wholesale changes in a pod’s temporal social hierarchy may occur.

In one sense, a breach is any behavior in which a substantial portion of the whale breaks the surface. But in practice, a breach is considered to be that most dramatic of events, when the whale launches itself headfirst out of the water with such force it becomes almost entirely airborne. Breaching associated with the heat run most often occurs when a humpback affiliates (joins the pod) or disaffiliates. In addition to the possibility that whales are visually scanning their environment while breaching, Dr. Salden feels the breach has a communication function as well, an opinion shared by other researchers and formulated from years of anecdotal observations. An expert in nonverbal communication, Dr. Salden suspects breaching is the humpback’s way of announcing It is I!, with any surrounding activities forming a context in which the breach must be interpreted. It may be an aggressive signal from an arriving whale (It is I, watch out!) or a parting shot from a disaffiliating whale (Remember me!). When accompanied by a breach, whatever the whale is communicating is “said” with emphasis. An adult whale’s full breach is the most exciting singular behavior humpback observers see. A mighty launch rockets 45 tons of twisting whale skyward, pectoral fins flinging sheets of water aside, ending in a slow motion body slam heard for great distances.

North Pacific humpback whale, breach, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whale, breach.
Image ID: 00205
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

Underwater, a full breach is a frightening thunderclap, a painfully sharp crack. Captain Jill Mickelsen and I experienced a particularly memorable breaching session one day while in the water observing a mother-calf-escort trio off the north shore of Lanai. Strangely, as the mother and calf slowly circled us, the escort unleashed a succession of more than 25 breaches quite close to our boat. Wind chop, combined with his splashes, reduced the water visibility to less than 60 feet, forcing Jill and I to search continually for the escort deep below as he prepared to rush upward for his next launch. Occasionally, we could see him spiraling and pumping as he approached the surface and we could signal to the boat where he would emerge. More often we would simply hear his breach and realize gratefully that he did not land on us. Researcher David Glickman was able to capture these breaches in a video record that shows the escort slamming one pectoral fin against the water each time he landed, as if to add to his impact. He eventually stopped after the mother directed several peduncle throws at him. Did she tire of his show, or was her calf becoming distressed? No sooner was the breaching finished than Galapagos sharks appeared, swimming erratically with pectoral fins lowered. Had they been attracted by the surface activity or had the breaching been directed at them as a warning? In either case, we were swimming in waters filled with many large pieces of humpback skin shed during the melee — a whale-scented chum line! Four sharks quickly approached me from below, nipping at my fins. I have been told a video camera was still recording as I yelled for the boat and scrambled aboard, rattled.

North Pacific humpback whale, peduncle throw, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whale, peduncle throw.
Image ID: 02153
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

It is in large surface active pods that the potential for a heat run lies and that courtship roles become clear, although no direct evidence linking such social behavior to mating has yet been found. In-water observations allow us to examine facets of behavior not observable from the boat, including actions carried out in conjunction with social sounds. Courtship, mating and birthing activities likely occur in the North Pacific humpback wintering areas of Hawaii, Japan and Mexico. Still, the reproductive lives of humpbacks remain a mystery. Do humpbacks mate in Hawaii or on the journey back to Alaska? Where are the calves born, in sheltered waters or open ocean? Although we have recorded an uncommon underwater humpback penis display and analyzed a sample of humpback placenta, no confirmed direct observation of either mating or calving has been recorded. Pods exhibiting courtship behavior are thus valuable as they provide information about which whales are together this year, in anticipation of calves next year. These data will help us to answer broader questions about whether humpbacks form long-term social affiliations and what factors might influence such relationships.


The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, designated by Congress in 1992, specifically recognizes the importance of the humpback whale and its winter habitat and will promote protection, research and education while monitoring both the whale and its Hawaiian environment. The Hawaii Whale Research Foundation studies humpback social affiliation and communication with the belief that if the behaviors of these magnificent animals are more fully understood, we may better offer recommendations that protect and preserve them. HWRF was founded and is directed by Dan R. Salden, Ph.D., past chair of the Department of Speech Communication at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. HWRF maintains a growing database of individually identified North Pacific humpback whales, including some that are known to winter in Japan and Mexico as well as Hawaii, and a video record documenting humpback behavior and social roles. HWRF is a publicly supported nonprofit organization staffed by a small group of volunteers. Five winter months of data collection and photo-documentation in Hawaii are augmented by year-round analysis, scientific publications, public service seminars and educational presentations. Field studies are governed by the provisions of NOAA Fisheries (aka, National Marine Fisheries Service) and State of Hawaii scientific research permits.

North Pacific humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whale.
Image ID: 00167
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

More information about Dr. Dan Salden and Hawaii Whale Research Foundation can be found on HWRF’s website.

As he has with all of my past articles, Skip Stubbs offered important advice.

Some humpback whale behaviors often observed in association with surface active groups (heat runs):

Breaching
Underwater bubble displays
Mother / calf pairs
Lunging
Peduncle throws and tail lobs
Pectoral fin displays
Crucifix blocking

Keywords: humpback whale, megaptera novaeangliae, surface active, behavior, rowdy group, maui, hawaii, pacific.

Humpback Whale Pictures (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Humpback Whale

I was fortunate to assist Dr. Dan Salden of Hawaii Whale Research Foundation on the waters near Maui for quite a few years studying humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), and have some interesting photos that came from those efforts.

North Pacific humpback whale, breach, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whale, breach.
Image ID: 00205
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

Keywords: humpback whale picture, megaptera novaeangliae, stock photo, image, photograph.

Boat Strikes Humpback Whale

Hawaii, Humpback Whale, Wildlife

Some years ago, when I was assisting Dr. Dan Salden and Hawaii Whale Research Foundation during whale seaon in Hawaii, we came across a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) not far from Lahaina that showed considerable scarring, almost certainly from a boat strike. The most likely explanation for the series of thin, evenly spaced, parallel cuts is a boat propeller, making numerous slices along the dorsal ridge of the whale as the boat passes over the whale. The whale would have been at the surface, or just below the surface, for this to occur. It appears that the wounds have healed on this particular whale, and the whale did not show any evidence of disability that I recall.

North Pacific humpback whale showing extensive scarring, almost certainly from a boat propeller, on dorsal ridge, Megaptera novaeangliae, Maui

North Pacific humpback whale showing extensive scarring, almost certainly from a boat propeller, on dorsal ridge.
Image ID: 05910
Species: Humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Location: Maui, Hawaii, USA

See more humpback whale photos and photos of Megaptera novaeangliae.