Remember Monica? She's a second year intern who returned to us with the plan that she would be working as a whale watch naturalist...but then her boat sank. She's still in interning for us, even though this summer hasn't gone the way any of us thought. That's the thing about transitional periods they're never all that predictable. Below Monica tells us about fall as a transitional time for Gulf of Maine humpbacks.
As we move into the month of October, the migratory season for our humpback whales begins and we start to notice some whales that we’ve been seeing all season go missing. That’s not to say we don’t still have whales in the area, because we do! In fact we've had an influx of many new whales - so much so we've had to spend much more time in the office trying to identify the whales we see on the boats because they aren’t “the regulars”. What’s more difficult is that a lot of these whales are young adults- some don’t even have names yet, and some only received names either this year or last.
The fluke pattern of calves are usually hazy and they tend to sharpen up in the first few years. Most of the patterns stay relatively the same, with only small changes. There are a few though that if you were only paying attention of one particular mark to try and make the match - you would completely miss the match. Vector’s 2007 calf is a great example of this. This first photo was taken in 2007 when this humpback was a calf with it's mother Vector.
Now comparied to how this whale looks this year. One has to search a little harder to see that it's the same whale. This is one of the reasons that calves don’t receive names until they are resighted in a second year and their fluke pattern is starting to stabilize. The good news is that the serration pattern (jagged leading edge of the fluke) is also unique to the whale. So while ID’ing is more of a challenge, we are still able to identify these young animals and compare them to photos from previous years. However, it gets even more difficult when you factor in that the whales don't always wait or position themselves nicely to have their picture made - particularly the young ones. So for individuals like Mar's 09 calf you end up having to match photos like this.
to a photo like this.
So even though fall is a time of transitions (for all of us) and it's I common to see a larger number of young whales, we still see a few of the older whales as well. Though there is a lot we’re still learning about the social structure of humpbacks, we do see a hierarchy on the feeding grounds. Whales like Salt, Cajun and Perseid that we’ve seen all season are older, more experienced whales and have access to preferential habitats. They get the “cream of the crop” so to speak- where the food is most plentiful. It’s often in the spring and fall, when the adults begin their migration, that we see the younger whales taking advantage of those productive areas to feast.