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August 2019

Meeting ‘the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales’ – humpbacks

By | All News, Life, Photography, Travel, Whales | One Comment

Whale watched in both feeding and breeding grounds, humpbacks reward whale watchers so often with their behaviours. Herman Melville described humpbacks as “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water than any other of them”. And he was right.

A mother humpback appearing to be giving her calf a breaching lesson, South Africa. 

As an aside, if you are going whale watching, do check how many boats work that area as in many places humpbacks could be considered too whale watched. I work in Hólmavík, Westfjords Iceland now, where we are the only boat with the whales. Much better for you and for the whales.

I had been saving money while working in the university library to do a masters in oil painting restoration, when I heard about an internship to go and work on a whale watch with humpback whales. When the lovely whale freak Cynde McInnis (I hope she does not mind being described that way) agreed to have me along, I spent that money on going to Gloucester, Massachusetts to intern for Cape Ann Whale Watch.
I had only seen one wild baleen whale before, off the coast of Scotland on a week-long wildlife watching trip. While it was a fabulous trip around the outer Hebrides, one glimpse at a Minke whale was certainly different to what I would experience with the humpback whales.
Humpback whales are known for their curiosity, surface behaviours and bubble feeding techniques, all of which incredible behaviours I would get to see in my three month internship.

A feeding ground for humpbacks off the coast of New-England, Stellwagen Bank is a US National Marine Sanctuary. The humpback whales are well known there with individuals having been followed since the mid 1970s, using the unique patterns on the underside of the tail. These black and white patterns, like our fingerprints, allow us to follow the whales using photographs. An annual ‘whale naming party’ attended by all the whale watchers in the area meant the whales got names based on the patterns on their tails.

I was so very lucky to learn about working on a whale watch here. Cynde has completed a masters in whale watching education, and I learned from one of the best. We had teaching tools which we took around the boat to show the passengers and teach them about the whales before and after our time on whales. Although responsible, well managed whale watching I do not believe is detrimental to the whales, I feel you are doing the animals a huge injustice if you do not teach people about what they are seeing when out on the boats. Having a boat around can obviously affect the whales a little, but if the people on board leave with a new respect, knowledge and understanding of what they saw and conservation issues facing whales, at least some minor disturbance from a boat is somewhat mitigated.

I still use the knowledge I gained from my internship twenty years ago to teach passengers every day on the whale watches I now work on, with basic teaching tools like baleen and whale teeth. Engaging people in the whales, environment and what they saw is very important to be a great whale watching guide in my opinion.

During my time in Massachusetts I got to know some individual humpback whales well and I will share the amazing story of Spoon with you in my next blog.