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Whale Reports | Whale Report 5

Understanding Humpback Distribution and Feeding Activities in the North Atlantic

Newfoundland and Labrador Tour Operators Contribute

Capturing a photo of a breaching humpback is one of whale watching's greatest thrills. Every year numerous travelers to Newfoundland and Labrador get their "thrill".

Since the 1970s, scientists and tour boat operators around the coast of Newfoundland have been collecting humpback identification photographs and sharing them among one another. This effort intensified in the 1990s with the growth of adventure tourism around the coast. Some tour operators, their guests, and other whale enthusiasts delighted in the idea of contributing to the collection of useful data. When combined with studies carried out elsewhere we are getting a better idea of how this impressive animal lives.

The humpback is one of the most obvious inhabitants of the rich ocean around the Newfoundland and Labrador coast. Their presence is indicative of a rich and productive marine system. As engaged citizens of this ocean planet we know that understanding humpbacks can provide important insights of global significance with respect to the health of the ocean.

Occasionally humpbacks can get very curious about people. This humpback is "spyhopping" to get a better look at the Wildland Tours' guests.

Local children enjoy watching humpbacks feed close to the gravel beach at St. Vincent's.

Every year we see uncountable billions of caplin between northern Labrador and southern Newfoundland. This immense productivity attracts the world's largest gathering of humpback whales.

Humpback feeding next to the rocky cliffs of St. Anthony, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gash on jaw probably from chasing caplin along the rocky bottom.

Note how this lunge-feeding humpback also shows a gash on its lower jaw from pursuing caplin near the shore.

This humpback, known to us as Stumpy, was first photographed by Hal Whitehead in 1979 off Bay de Verde. It is known as #1577 to the scientists at Allied Whale.

Humpbacks will sometimes loudly slap their pectoral fins on to the water. This signal can be a warning when orcas are about but it also appears to sometimes be play behaviour.

Humpback viewed off Witless Bay every year since 1999.

To contribute a useful humpback whale tail photo, try to get a full frame, centered image of the tail that clearly shows the tail markings.

The Maine-based organization Allied Whale part of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbour has served as the world-wide coordinating agency for studying humpback whale distribution and have enabled us to get a better understanding of where humpbacks go and what they do as they make their living along the Newfoundland and Labrador coast.

We now know that many humpbacks come back to Newfoundland and Labrador year after year. Some travel to the same near-shore bays and associate with some of the same individual whales year after year. Here they bring their young who spend most of their time quietly feeding at their mother's side. Sometimes the drive for play is overwhelming and young animal's put on playful displays for travelers, adult whales, other calves, and even other species of whale.

None of these actions are especially surprising but humpbacks are a compelling part of the ocean's story, and nowhere do they put on a more diverse series of behavioral spectacles than off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador .

Sometimes the first humpbacks from the south first arrive at St. Vincent's in June. They patrol the beach lunge-feeding. Sometimes this feeding activity sees the whale lunge onto the steep beach edge as it pursues caplin.

Caplin (spelled "capelin" outside of Newfoundland and Labrador) are a keystone part of the North Atlantic. Seabirds, cod, and a diversity of other animals depend upon them. Seabirds like murres and puffins time the hatching of their chicks to coincide with the arrival of the caplin every summer.

The caplin appear to be the most popular food item for the near-shore humpbacks in season although humpbacks are known to eat herring, squid, and a number of other fish species. The largest gatherings of humpbacks in Newfoundland and Labrador waters are associated with the summer caplin run although there are some humpbacks that overwinter off the coast, and these appear to be associated with abundant herring stocks.

In St. Anthony and off Battle Harbour, humpbacks will feed next to the shore. Here the cliffs going into the sea are vertical and the humpbacks sometimes hunt for spawning herring among the seaweeds. On other occasions, it appears that caplin are hiding from the whales among the coastal seaweeds.

When they travel to other parts of the coast, they often use different feeding behaviours.

In Witless Bay and along the coast of the Avalon Peninsula, humpbacks dive to the bottom of the ocean after caplin. Sometimes they cut themselves on the rocky ocean bottom as they forage. They can also show gashes when feeding near the shore.

Some scientists now believe that humpbacks swimming to New England, Newfoundland, and Labrador run a gauntlet of predatory orcas waiting to devour the calves. About 20 per cent of the humpbacks around Newfoundland and Labrador show scars from orca encounters but because of their large size it seems unlikely that orcas would have much success attacking adult humpbacks. Smaller whales make a more obvious choice of prey and the Wildland Tours and Atlantic Whales websites have written accounts of orcas attacking, but not killing humpbacks. Our tours and some of our tour boat partners have provided dramatic accounts of orcas killing dolphins and minke whales (which are much smaller than humpbacks). Perhaps the large number of humpbacks with scars are our first insight into a dramatic annual rite of passage as newborn humpback whales are intercepted by orcas as they swim north for their first summer of feeding in the productive waters off New England, Newfoundland, and Labrador.

The Atlantic Whales website includes story and the sound recording of when a group of seven orcas swam up to two adult humpbacks with a juvenile.

Often these encounters leave the humpback showing a scar. About one out of every six Newfoundland and Labrador humpbacks show bite marks from encounters with orcas.

The efforts of whale watching passengers, contributing boat tour companies, and the scientists are starting to provide new insights into humpbacks. For example, the guests of Wildland Tours have been watching humpback #1778 since 1999 and have seen her every year around Witless Bay. During one summer she was accompanied by a young calf which enabled us to determine her gender. Note how small the orca bite marks on her tail appears. This bite was inflicted prior to 1999. (Check out the second-to-last photo in this section to see our humpback who is known to Allied Whale as HWC #1778 and sometimes called Quasie as in Quasimoto.)

You can help with the continuing study of humpbacks by going to see the whales and sending your photos to Atlantic Whales in Newfoundland and Labrador or to Allied Whale in the United States.

We welcome your contributions!

The tour boat operators listed on this website have assisted us with the study of the region's humpbacks, orcas, and other whales. They are respectful friends of the whales and follow a code of conduct designed to ensure the whales are not negatively influenced by the presence of humans.

In early 2008, Wildland Tours/Atlantic whales contributed over 150 humpback identification photographs to Allied Whale. Thank you to our guests and industry partners who made this possible.

All photos in this essay are courtesy of Wildland Tours!

Dave Snow has written numerous articles and special publications on seabirds, whales, and marine ecology. Wildland Tours promotes and coordinates the Newfoundland and Labrador portion of the world-wide humpback whale census. This population has been found to be the planet's largest feeding gathering of humpbacks. The study of whale numbers provides important insights into oceanic health.


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