Hump­back Whales

THE LONG­EST MI­GRA­TION OF ALL MAM­MALS

Asian Geographic - - Culture - By Kathy Poh

would you take on an 9,800-kilo­me­tre jour­ney? Just slightly over the length of a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Moscow, the most sen­si­ble mode of trans­port would seem to be a plane. It might be un­think­able for us to travel this dis­tance by foot, but for a species of gen­tle aquatic gi­ants, this is a feat con­quered re­peat­edly by the hump­back whales through­out their lives.

These fas­ci­nat­ing crea­tures hold the record for the long­est sea­sonal mi­gra­tion route among mam­mals. With their knob­bly heads, long pec­toral fins and dis­tinc­tive shape, they grow to a max­i­mum length of 16 me­tres and can weigh up to 36,000 kilo­grammes; with the fe­males gen­er­ally larger than the males. Hump­back whales are soli­tary, but may gather in groups for co-operative feed­ing.

Hump­back whales’ range spans all oceans, but the dis­tri­bu­tion is strongly sea­sonal. In sum­mer the whales are found in po­lar wa­ters where krill and small fish are abun­dant, while in win­ter they travel to the warmer trop­ics to breed and give birth. Due to sea­sonal re­ver­sals be­tween our hemi­spheres, the pop­u­la­tions re­sid­ing in the North and South Hemi­spheres al­most never meet.

The ne­ces­sity of mi­gra­tion to warmer, shal­lower wa­ters for breed­ing lies in the fact that it pro­vides young whales the best chances for sur­vival. Born with­out blub­ber, hump­back calves may not be able to en­dure frigid wa­ters as well as their older coun­ter­parts. Fur­ther­more, in tem­per­ate re­gions, the pres­ence of preda­tors like orcas poses a di­rect threat to the calves’ lives.

How­ever, un­til re­cent his­tory, na­ture was not the only de­ter­mi­nant of whether a hump­back whale would live or die. Be­tween the 18th and 20th cen­turies, the friendly dis­po­si­tion of hump­back whales made them a pre­ferred tar­get of whalers around the world for their meat, oil and blub­ber. Dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, more than 200,000 hump­backs were taken and they were brought to the brink of ex­tinc­tion. To­day, the in­ter­na­tional hump­back whale com­mu­nity has re­bounded to a size of at least 80,000 af­ter a whal­ing ban was in­tro­duced in 1966.

The most ro­bust hump­back whale pop­u­la­tions to­day have their breed­ing grounds in lo­ca­tions like the east and west coasts of Aus­tralia, as well as the is­lands of Hawaii. These have be­come pop­u­lar spots for sci­en­tific re­search and whale-watch­ing – wit­ness­ing hump­backs’ spec­tac­u­lar ac­ro­batic dis­plays in the lat­ter ac­tiv­ity has played a large part in se­cur­ing them a space in our hearts. ag

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