\"Pop\" goes the Humpback

28 August 2010

The marine forecast is less than encouraging for the next few days; in fact it will likely be Wednesday, September 1st before we see the return of the idyllic Whitsunday weather.

Which leaves us one choice: head out anyway weather be damned.

Studying whales in the Whitsundays is really amazing. 74 islands, passages, beaches, inlets, sandy beaches, and rocky shorelines everywhere you look. In fact, if you didn’t know better (and you just looked at the photos) you would think you were in some high mountain lake in Idaho, Oregon or Washington – places where I spent my summer months as a youth.

From afar the islands look soft, green and tropical. Up close they are rough, rocky, craggy, and colorful.

Today we survey over 114 nautical miles, and encounter several mother and calf pods. As we head for home and exit the Hook Passage and enter the Whitsunday Passage, Annie detects a blow.

The tide is turning and the seas are churning here. Spotting conditions are less than ideal in the fading light.

“Well, I thought I saw a whale,” muses Annie.

Ten minutes pass.

“There, about two miles away,” shouts Amanda.

Hmmm, seems like I under-estimated where the whale might have been.

We cruise slowly westward and stop. The ocean comes alive with sound.

A singer. Male humpback whales sing long, intricate songs during the winter breeding season. The song changes from year to year, and actually evolves throughout the season. The song heard at the end the season is quite different from the song heard at the beginning. And uniquely enough, when they return next year, they will commence singing the same song they ended with the prior season.

There are a variety of hypothesis as to why humpbacks sing: to attract a mate, to announce fitness to prospective females, to establish territory or to attract other males in an effort to impress females that “If you think I am a loser whale, check out my buddies.” Needless to say, whatever the reason humpbacks sing, it is a profound and private event to witness and hear live in the wild.

The challenge with singers is they can be down for protracted periods at a time, anywhere from 6 – 60 minutes. And for research purposes, you never quite know where they will come up because not all singers remain stationary – they often cruise while singing -- especially if they are in the presence of a mother and calf.

Occasionally, very occasionally, we encounter a singer that slowly surfaces tail first. Today we found such a whale.

The winds were blowing around 20 knots, and we were drifting quickly north with the incoming tide. The whale song was fading, but we could still hear the song murmuring above the waves.

Then it happened. Like the kid’s game “Pop Goes the Weasel”, up popped our singer, tail first, in a glorious humpback headstand for the whole world to see. The singer’s massive fluke and tailstock were held frozen above the seas, unwavering, and then as quickly as it rose, it slipped beneath the waves.

“Wow” said Amanda.

Wow indeed. Twelve minutes later, we experience an encore performance of “Pop Goes the Humpback”, and then without warning the singing stops and our head-standing humpback heads south.

Hard pressed to beat that performance, we head for port, heads spinning.


Greg Kaufman