Most any day now, I expect we’ll hear the news of the first sighting of humpback whales arrival to the Hawaiian Islands. Last year we had a fun contest to predict the first sighting which was on October 8th. The previous year the first humpback spotted was on October 7 and in 2006, it was October 11th. Here we are on the 19th with no reports of a humpback sighting.
Thousands of humpback whales spend their winters in Hawaii and their summers in Southeast Alaska. (Sounds like an ideal vacation combination to me.) Humpback whales embark on an month-long journey to the protected waters of Hawaii each winter to give birth to their calves, nurse their young, and mate. But what do they do in the summer months when they are in Alaska? Well, all in the name of blog research 😉 I went to Alaska this summer to “study” their summer behavior. Here are some of the things I observed and learned:
- They eat like crazy in Alaska’s waters. In fact, they can literally eat a ton of food each day.
- Humpbacks can only eat krill and small fish because their equivalent of teeth is a series of thin plates, called baleen, that food filters through. (See more on baleen.)
- The mothers continue to teach their calves how to live and survive. I was fascinated to learn that all humpback whale behaviors are learned behaviors – even breathing is a learned behavior.
- When the whales travel from Hawaii to Alaska, they always return to the same spot their mothers first brought them. Isn’t that incredible? They must have built-in GPS systems that tell them where “home” is.
- Whales have really, really bad breath. We caught a whiff of whale breath when a whale surfaced to breath. Oh my gosh, it is the worst breath, ever. Someone should invent a whale Tic Tac. I guess if you eat all that shrimp and fish without brushing your baleen, you’re going to get bad breath. 😉
- Some whale behaviors are localized. For example, we observed bubble feeding near Juneau, but the humpbacks near Sitka, never bubble feed. By the way, bubble feeding is when a group of humpbacks work together to confuse a school of fish by blowing bubbles and surrounding them until they gather into a small area where they are easily eaten. It’s very exciting to watch – especially when you see several humpbacks surfacing with their mouths open.