The humpback whale can be seen in the Virgin Islands between December and May.
Each year with the regularity of northern tourists fleeing the winter cold, the humpback whale visits the Virgin Islands. For the most part, humpbacks are quiet, unobtrusive guests barely noticed by islanders. They swim through the Territory’s calm and protected waters with a grace and beauty belying their monstrous size.
But when one does sight a humpback, it can cause quite a stir. At 40-feet, the average humpback is the length of a good-sized yacht. A wave of their fluke, which can measure 15-feet across can be equally impressive. Yet in spite of their imposing size, they are gentle creatures, shy but not inhospitable when it comes to human contact.
There is certainly an aura of mystery about these fascinating creatures known for their melodic song and vast migratory treks that causes awe and curiosity in both laymen and scientists: just what brings the humpback to the Virgin Islands like clockwork each winter, and where do they go when they are not here?
Whales make their way to the Caribbean each winter to breed, and are generally found in the Virgin Islands from December to May. Local food is scarce and not to a humpback’s liking, so as soon as their calves are old enough to sustain the long journey, pods of three to 15 whales begin migrating northward to summer feeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean. En route, they stop off for a short period of relaxation in Bermuda. They then continue their unerring northerly course, hugging the North American shoreline up past Newfoundland, Iceland, Norway and finally to the Arctic.
Humpbacks are part of the Mystacoceti or baleen group of whales. Baleens do not have teeth; instead their mouths contain a plate of whalebone (baleen) whose fringed edge acts as a sieve. Through its baleen, the whale strains a vast quantity of water to remove small plankton-like creatures known as krill – as well as herring and mackerel.
The Latin term for humpback is Megaptera novaengliae, which means bi-winged New Englander. Bi-winged is a reference to their huge flippers (almost one-third of their length), but the term New Englander is a less accurate description, since branches of this great whale family are also found in the in the Southern Hemisphere and in the Pacific Ocean where they migrate from the Arctic to summer breeding grounds in Hawaii. The paths of these humpbacks never cross and populations never intermix.
Humpbacks are perhaps the most playful of the world’s whales. While in the Virgin Islands they are often seen floating on the surface, their giant arched backs looking from the distance like over-inflated rubber dinghies.
But when the whim strikes them, they perform spirited leaps clear out of the water. Then as suddenly as they started, they stop, leaving only a frothy trail of spray and a huge wake as a reminder of their acrobatics.
According to some scientists such leaps – called breaching – are as practical as they are playful, since they may ease itching caused by up to half a ton of barnacles that cling to their backs in cold waters. When whales sound – or dive deep beneath the surface – they can reach a depth of 325 feet and remain under for about 10 to 15 minutes before resurfacing with a whoosh of water from their spout.
Humpbacks are both friendly and fascinating creatures. Scientific studies are being conducted into their migratory patterns, how they so unerringly plot their way through the ocean, as well as their complex methods of communications.
The singing of the humpback has so far provided man’s best insight into their intelligence. Unlike the mechanical and repetitious singing of a bird, the eerie and mysterious underwater songs of the whale evolve, seemingly composed as they go along. The songs of two consecutive years are more alike than two songs separated by several years. But regardless of how complex the changes are, each whale apparently keeps pace with the others and every year the new song is the only one the listener hears. Even more impressive, is the fact that humpbacks seem to remember their songs from year to year. As each tropical season begins, the whale sings the previous year’s song with changes occurring only as the winter progresses.
Man’s relationship with humpbacks hasn’t always been as benevolent as it is today. As a matter of fact, overhunting the humpback in the early 20th century brought them to the verge of extinction. Both their slow, regular migratory pattern which takes them close to shorelines and their rather naïve attitude towards man made them easy prey for whale hunters.
At the beginning of the 20th century there were perhaps 100,000 humpback whales throughout the world. By 1966 this number had been reduced to around 5,000, prompting a ban on commercial humpback whaling by the International Whaling Commission that year.
That’s the bad news. But there is good news as well. Although it is difficult to count whales, seashepherd.org estimates that there now are between 30,000-40,000 whales world-wide – a great comeback, but this is still only about 30-35% of their original population.
Here in the British Virgin Islands, the Department of Conservation and Fisheries monitors the whales on their annual visit to determine how local populations are faring. As boating activity in the Territory increases in the BVI humpbacks face a different type of danger – injury by boat propellers. Boaters are therefore urged to keep a watchful eye out for these behemoths and steer clear of them when spotted. But even from afar, there is nothing more thrilling than viewing theses gentle giants of the sea.