Backyard Naturalist:  The tail of a whale

  • A humpback whale off the coast of Bar Harbor, Maine. COURTESY PHOTO

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/27/2022 11:52:22 AM

The second in a three-part series about the humpback whales that live off the coast of New Hampshire.

No one really knows how long whales live. Isn’t that amazing? We have suspicions and educated guesses, of course. But it’s only been since the 1970s that scientists began to pay attention to whales as species worthy of study.

Part of the reason was that, for the last couple of centuries, people were really only interested in whales for their oil and the products that could be made from it. Whales were basically the original fossil fuels. Whale fat or blubber was rendered into oils that lubricated machines and provided lighting for 18th-century homes. Commercial whaling, in fact, helped fuel the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States. And it also helped drive many whale species to the brink of extinction.

As whale numbers declined, industrialists eventually replaced their oil with kerosene which was cheaper and more efficient. Yet it wasn’t until the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 that whale oil was formally phased out of industrial uses. 

One reason that moratorium even came about was a public campaign called “Save the Whales,” which was inspired in part by a 1970 album called “Songs of the Humpback Whales.” Produced by bioacoustician Roger Payne, this multiplatinum album, which contained just over 34 minutes of whale sounds, opened up an unprecedented window into the humpback whales’ lives and culture. (Further research by Payne’s then-wife Katy Payne later demonstrated that all humpback males in a given ocean sing the same song.)

The subsequent awareness of whales as more than blubber factories — and as species that clearly merited saving — sparked an enormous drive to learn more about them. But finding even large cetaceans in the vast ocean, and then being able to study them, presented enormous challenges. Luckily, humpback whales did have one unusual feature that made it much easier -- they all have unique identifying marks on their enormous tails (or flukes). 

Some of these marks are natural variations, distinctive black marks against a white tail. Plus some whales have distinct scars from barnacles (which cling to the whales for periods of time) or from shark attacks when they were young. Sadly, many whales now also have unique marks from injuries they received from entanglement in fishing gear or from being hit by ships or even recreational boats.

But being able to identify an individual whale means we can keep track of them and learn about their lives. For example, through repeated sightings of different individuals, researchers now know that humpback whales live all around the world in distinct groups. And each population has their own breeding and wintering grounds that they migrate between, most of them thousands of miles apart. 

Certain individual whales have been sighted a lot. A female humpback whale named Salt may be the oldest living humpback whale, although no one knows her exact age. Salt was one of the first humpbacks identified in 1975 just off the coast of New Hampshire, and she has shown up again like clockwork nearly every year since.

Ocean Alliance, the whale conservation organization founded by Roger Payne shortly after he discovered whale songs, is one of the groups that keeps track of Salt. They know she has had at least 15 babies (or calves) in the intervening 47 years. These offspring have gone on to make Salt a grandmother 17 times over and a great-grandmother at least three times. Salt and her dynasty have contributed a wealth of information about whale feeding behavior, family dynamics and even basic reproduction.

Whale identification catalogs are kept by several research groups. One site, which can be found at happywhale.org allows anyone to upload their own photographs of whale tails. Thanks to marvel of artificial intelligence, you will be notified if “your” whale has already been identified, or if it is a new sighting.

Browse the Happy Whale collection anytime and learn about each whale’s sighting history. It’s amazing where some whales show up and how far they travel. Recent sightings include places where whales haven’t been seen since whalers wiped out that population hundreds of years ago! 

With any luck, we will keep learning about whales and how to protect them from this century’s threats. Seems like the very least we can do. Who knows what else they have to teach us?

Rosemary Conroy is a naturalist, writer, visual artist and dedicated whale groupie. See her whale-inspired artwork at her website at rosemaryconroyart.com.


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