Spoon the sleepy, massive humpback whale

Spoon is a very special whale. She is huge, often seems a bit sleepy, and sadly appears to not be a very good mother!

Spoon is often sighted sleeping. When humpbacks sleep the lay motionless in the water. Half their brain is asleep, while the other half remains awake to remind them to breathe as they do not breathe automatically like we do. 

It was the 1970s when we first started studying live whales and realised that we can tell individuals apart by natural markings. With humpbacks we use the black and white patterns on the under-side of the tail, but with other species we use other parts of the body, like the skin for gray whales and blues, and dorsal fins with the saddle patch for orcas.

I started my whale watching off the coast of New England, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. There the humpback whales are given names based on a pattern on the tail. This is not to try and make the whales into pets, they are wild animals (and so they should be), but it is much easier to remember a name than a catalogue number. The names are not gender specific as we mostly do not know males from females, or people names, but named from looking at the tail and seeing an interesting mark or pattern.

Spoon’s tail. You can see a kind of spoon shaped mark just to the left of the centre (you need to have an imagination to name whales!)

The company I worked for, Cape Ann Whale Watch, had a life size humpback painted on the dock where we tied up the boat. The whale that was chosen to be painted, out of a population of thousands, was Spoon. Before every trip we did a dock talk standing on the painted Spoon, explaining details of the trip ahead.


This is me giving a dock talk on top of a life size representation of Spoon

Spoon is thought to be one of the biggest whales in this population, estimates suggest around 55 feet long (16.7 metres). Female humpbacks are larger than males, probably because they have to go through a long period of starvation when they are nursing a calf down in the breeding grounds. Most of the north Atlantic humpback whale population breed on Silver Bank, off the coast of the Dominican Republic. There is no humpback food down in these warmer waters and so the mothers feed their calves when fasting, losing a massive amount of blubber; up to a third of their body weight.

Having done hundreds of dock talks standing on Spoon’s outline and explaining the pattern on her tail, as well as seeing her many times (mostly sleeping) out on Stellwagen Bank, the feeding ground, I went to the Dominican Republic to see the whales in their breeding area.

During my time there with Conscious Breath Adventures I was lucky enough to get to swim with the humpback whales. One mother and calf in particular, during the week I was there, allowed us into the water with them multiple times. Before entering the water with the whales a member of the crew goes in first to check the whales do not mind the presence of people near them. This is one of the reasons I recommend this area as one of the most responsible swim with programmes in the world. Only three boats are allowed in the area, there is a huge area that is off-limit for boats and swimmers and as you are there for a week they never put people in the water with whales that do not seem comfortable with people around. If you just go out to swim with whales for one day, the temptation for the crew to put people in the water when it is inappropriate to do so is very strong.

Spoon’s calf underwater, which we nick-named ‘Lucky’. 

When photos were analysed after the trip we realised that the mother and calf we had been in the water with was none other than Spoon. How amazing that out of a population of thousands of whales the one I got to see underwater was the same individual we chose to have as our mascot at Cape Ann Whale Watch.

Sadly her calf of that year looked like it had already been entangled in fishing gear with scars on the pectoral fins when it was only a few months old.

Lucky with his Mum Spoon seen as the dark shape behind. Sadly Lucky didn’t seem to survive his first feeding season.

I got to see Spoon later that year back on Stellwagen Bank, Massachusetts with her calf, but later that season she was spotted alone and her calf from that season has never been re-sighted. Sadly, many of Spoon’s calves appear to have not made it to adulthood. She certainly appears to be a very calm whale, maybe it could be said a little inattentive to her offspring. As you get to know individual whales it is fascinating to see their different skills and personalities. They have them just as we do.

Judith Scott

About Judith Scott

I am an international whale watching guide.

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