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The Story of Sonja
Animal #: NP0096
Sonja is a humpback whale that was sighted off the coast of Maui on February 1, 1997 near Olowalu with an additional adult and again six days later in a mom/calf/escort pod. It was not determined whether Sonja was the mother or the male escort. On March 18, 2013 Sonja was seen with five other humpback whales in mid-Ma'alaea Bay. The whale was sighted again south of Ma'alaea on April 12, 2013, and was likely an escort with a mom and calf.
Humpback whales migrate to Hawaii from Alaska annually to birth their young and mate. Typically, the humpback whales are in Hawaiian waters from November to May and the theory is that the warmer more sheltered waters provide safer breeding grounds for the whales.
Marshall and Sue Mortenson named Sonja as a special gift for their daughter, Sonja Mortenson . Although they are from Illinois, Marshall and Sue are frequent visitors to Maui and supporters of Pacific Whale Foundation. As they adopted and named Sonja, the humpback whale, Sue and Marshall expressed their hope that one day their daughter Sonja will be able to see the whale named in her honor in the wild.
Humpback whales are identified by their fluke patterns, which are unique in coloration and markings to each individual whale. In essence, the humpback whale’s fluke patterns are the equivalent of our fingerprints. The flukes of humpback whales can measure ten to fifteen feet wide and the underside, or ventral side, of the flukes have the unique black and white patterns that are specific to each animal. Genetics play a role in the coloration patterns. Permanent markings from barnacles and/or scratches can also be used as identifiable marks.
Researchers get a brief look at the underside of the flukes and cherish high quality photographs to be used in photoidentification. It takes skill to capture a good image of the humpback whales’ flukes since the underside is not always seen. A prime photo opportunity is with a fluke up dive. The photographs are analyzed in the Pacific Whale Foundation research lab and compared against previous photographs stored in the fluke database for Hawaiian whales. When our researchers match a photograph it means the whale has been sighted previously and the process allows for resights and a basis to put together a whale’s story.
Since Sonja was most likely the escort male when observed on April 12, 2013, only future sightings will confirm this. It is very difficult to assess the gender of a humpback whale, as the researcher needs a good look at the underside of the whale. We must rely on behaviors and the presence of a calf to help us identify if the whale is male or female.
By adopting Sonja, you have helped to support Pacific Whale Foundation’s ongoing studies of humpback whales. We look forward to future sightings of Sonja and the opportunity to learn more about this whale.