A few weeks ago, while aboard a Boston’s Best Cruises whale watch to collect data for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, I saw five humpback whales. That’s right, FIVE of them! This was the greatest number of humpback whales I had seen on a trip since my internship began in late August. Up until this trip, I had seen fin whales, minke whales, pods of common dolphin, and occasionally, if our boat was lucky, a humpback whale or two.
Seeing whales is spectacular. I am still dumbfounded when we stop to watch any marine mammal move effortlessly through the waves, come to the surface for a quick breath, then dive back down into the unknown. For me, these late summer and early fall trips have been excellent. Although locating whales has taken patience, the experience of being close to these animals is well worth long searches.
For those who’ve been to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in previous years, 2013 has been one of the most challenging whale watching years in nearly a decade. In the Gulf of Maine, humpback whales are the crown jewels of the whale watch experience. In past years, successful whale watching trips have witnessed dozens of humpbacks, feeding, resting, socializing, and occasionally breaching. Lately, there haven’t been many humpback whales in the area to find. So, what happened to them?
Well, no one can say exactly where these humpbacks have been this season. But, we do have a few ideas. During the summer, humpback whales need to feed in order to pack away nearly seven tons of energy (stored in their blubber) to fuel their entire winter migration south to warm waters for breeding and calving. These whales are going to be where there is food.
The fact that we haven’t had many humpbacks whales in the area is most likely due to a shift in the distribution and abundance of their prey. Many factors contribute to the productivity of an area, things like sea surface temperature, storms, light, nutrients, and upwelling. While these conditions were poor on Stellwagen Bank, humpback whales gorged on fish in neighboring areas to the north and south.
Speaking with naturalists who’ve experienced less than great whale watching years in the past, years like this one are generally followed by dramatic rebounds in whale numbers a few summers later. Reduced pressure on prey populations this year may mean more prey next year.
Are these shifts in prey regular, cyclical, abnormal? I’ll certainly be interested to see how this year compares with future years. It’s good to know that while these whales may not be on Stellwagen Bank this year, they will almost certainly return to the area in the coming years.