Big Love | Science | Smithsonian
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(Cheryl Carlin)

Big Love

In a mating ritual, male humpback whales leap, splash and fight. But researchers ask: just what does a female whale want?

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It's a perfect morning for sighting humpback whales. The water is calm under a slight breeze. Researchers Lou Herman and Adam Pack and three assistants scan the horizon with binoculars, looking for the characteristic misty plume blown into the air by a surfacing whale. Herman steers his motor launch, Kohola II, into the shallow waters of Auau Channel, separating Maui and Lanai islands.

"OK, off the starboard, we've got a competitive pod," shouts Pack, of the Dolphin Institute, a research center based in Honolulu. In a competitive pod, a female is accompanied by males vying to mate with her. The contests can be violent—the suitors often attack each other underwater—and the pod grows or shrinks as the melee attracts newcomers and drives others away.

Ten males are now swarming around this female. We watch the whales surface and spout, their black backs arching above the waves almost in unison as they breathe and dive. They're packed tightly together, like a team of motorcycle toughs, and they churn the water white and foamy. Sometimes a male surges ahead, breaking high above the waves to reveal its long, winglike pectoral fins. Thus the animal's scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae, the giant wing of New England, because the first humpbacks to be scientifically described came from northeastern U.S. waters.

Herman motors in close behind the white wake of the whales. "They're going flukes-up in a minute," Pack calls out, and the others ready their cameras to record the underside of each whale's flukes, or the two halves of its tail. Humpback whales have distinctive black-and-white patterns on their flukes, enabling researchers to identify individuals.

Herman has studied humpbacks here for 34 years, making this one of the longest-running whale research projects. A psychologist by training, Herman studies dolphin intelligence as well as humpback whale behavior; he's now president of the Dolphin Institute. He's published more than a hundred papers on such topics as the songs of humpbacks, their migration routes and interactions between mothers and calves. Pack joined the project in the 1990s, and the two scientists now oversee the life-history records of every whale the team photographs.

"OK, ready, we've got flukes coming up on the right," Pack calls out, as one of the males heads nose-down in a deep dive, the kind that will show off every inch of his tail as it flips up behind him. "Hey, we know him," Pack shouts. "I think we've got a re-sight of Number 48."

The three assistants fire away with their cameras, before the entire pod dives far below the surface.

"Pod's down," Pack announces. "Let's wait a few minutes, and then I want a full-boat watch."

Four minutes go by. "Behind you!" research assistant Aliza Milette shouts from the stern. "Pod up!"

Herman swings the boat around, positioning it again behind the whales, which battle on oblivious to our presence. Pack assigns names as they surface. "This male—maybe Number 48—on the left is Whitehook, the one behind him is Spade, that one with the tall dorsal fin, I'm calling Tall." A male with a slightly tilted dorsal fin is dubbed Slope, and two other males are christened Whitepoint and Flat. The female is referred to simply as N.A., or Nuclear Animal, since most of the action centers on her. N.A. seems not to notice; her dives are slow and smooth, her manner easy and unruffled.

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