THE LONGEST MIGRATION OF ALL MAMMALS
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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