Big Love- page 3 | 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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(Continued from page 2)

Herman has been keeping an eye on Hawaii's humpbacks since 1975. That was the year when "someone mentioned to me that they'd seen humpbacks here, offshore, which was a real surprise," he recalls onboard the Kohola II. (The boat's name is the Hawaiian word for humpback.) "So my wife and I chartered a helicopter. From the air, we spotted a few pods. No one knew there were any humpbacks in these waters until our report." The last mention of humpbacks in Hawaii had been decades earlier. So many of the animals had been slaughtered that they'd all but vanished from local waters.

Humpbacks were nearly hunted to extinction. Harvested in a limited way by coastal peoples for thousands of years, they became a prime target for commercial whalers in the 1800s. Whale oil was as highly prized then as petroleum is today. The northern right whale had been nearly exterminated (because northern right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, float after being killed, whalers said the species was the "right whale" to hunt). And new technological advances—steam-powered ships and explosive harpoons—made it possible for whalers to catch humpbacks efficiently. Demand grew during World War I, when European armies used glycerin from baleen whale oil to make explosives. Commercial whalers moved into feeding grounds near Antarctica where humpbacks, blue, Bryde's, fin and sei whales gathered each year in vast numbers. The whalers commenced a slaughter that continued until 1948, two years after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed with 15 member states to regulate the whale harvest.

Based on whaling records, scientists estimate that whaling nations (primarily the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia) killed more than 250,000 humpback whales during the 20th century. Certain populations were so reduced that many scientists feared they would never recover. In 1966, the IWC enacted a worldwide moratorium on the commercial hunting of humpback whales, a ban the Soviet Union ignored for seven years. NOAA's Phil Clapham estimates that by 1973, the number of humpbacks remaining may have been "in the low thousands," down from half a million or more.

In 1986, with nearly every whale species hovering close to extinction, the IWC extended the moratorium to all commercial whaling. Only small communities that have traditionally depended on whale meat, such as the coastal Inuit peoples of Alaska and Greenland, are allowed to kill a limited number of the animals. Norway and Iceland have rejected the overall ban; they primarily hunt minke whales, a species that whalers ignored in the past because of its small size. In recent years, Japan has hunted minke, sperm, sei, fin and Bryde's whales under an IWC regulation that allows governments to take whales for scientific research.

Overall, the IWC's moratorium on whale hunting is regarded as one of the most successful conservation measures of the 20th century. At least some populations of gray, Bryde's, blue, bowhead, sei and fin whales are stable or increasing in number. The northern right whale still hasn't recovered, however, and the northwest Pacific population of gray whales numbers less than a hundred. Today, the worldwide population of humpback whales stands at around 70,000.

Citing the humpback population rebound, Japan's Fisheries Agency last November dispatched its whaling ships to the Antarctic's Southern Ocean Sanctuary to harpoon as many as 50 humpbacks annually. In December, after worldwide protests, it postponed the hunt (see sidebar on page 60).

Some humpback experts point out that it's not necessary to kill whales to study them. "We're trying to put a face on each humpback whale," says Pack. "We're building the individual life stories of each one we see—who they spend time with, when they have calves, where they travel."

Aboard the Kohola II, Pack straps on a snorkel and mask and climbs into the water. In one hand he totes a well-worn video camera; with the other hand he strokes out to the area where the pod disappeared. About five feet away from the spot, he gives us a thumbs up, then dives down to join the whales.

After a few minutes, Pack pops to the surface and signals to be picked up. "They're on their way up," he says, as Herman helps pull him aboard.

Dripping from his dive, Pack explains what he saw below: "The N.A. is about 80 feet down, and Whitehook is right below her, chasing off intruders. It's classic mate-guarding behavior. He's making big sweeps with his pectoral fins if any guy comes near her; and if a challenger approaches from the front, he leaves her and makes a head-on attack. He sculled backwards once to take a tail swipe at a secondary escort, and then he sidled up next to her and blew out a linear bubble trail. Right after that, she began surfacing, and everybody followed."

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