Spoon the sleepy, massive humpback whale

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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.

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

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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.