Early this week, I got an offer to try the meat of whale. In some cultures, eating whales is normal. I am a graduate student in environmental sciences that has been working in the field of ocean conservation. Thus, the offer to try a bite of my favorite animal sounds quite disgraceful. Instead of tasting, I decided to learn more about humpback whales and how they are similar to people. My friend and former colleague zoologist Emer McCoy and a shark ecologist Catherine Cushenan were happy to help. In this article, you will find out why humpback whales are famous and how we are alike.
“We were surrounded by five adult humpback whales for four hours. And every time we jumped in for a swim, they would gravitate towards us. They would float curiously along, almost as if they were as fascinated by us as we were by them. They were showing off. Diving deep and blowing bubbles. And whenever we got out to give them a break, they’d immediately swim close to the boat. Slap the surface of the water with their pec fins to summon us back in”. Catherine talks about the most memorable moment of her work with @consciousbreathadventures earlier this year. Humpback whales are incredibly social animals. “Famously, they are renowned for their songs, which the males sing to attract females during the mating season. Interestingly, the song evolves each year. And is learned by the other males in that population each season, highlighting their level of sociality. “They also have slightly different cultural characteristics related to feeding methods based on the region where they are from. For example, in Norway, individuals are known to work together in synchronization to corral the herring on which they feed. This highlights how the social structure of the species facilitates learning and communication with each other. Humpback whales also have famously complex courtship rituals. Males will compete and perform acrobatic displays of breaches and tail lobs to win the company of the female.”, says Emer.
Humpback whales have a unique feature – they perform the altruistic acts and rescue hunted animals. “There have been occasions where humpback whales appear to perform interspecific altruistic acts of heroism. Often displaying mobbing behavior, and most frequently against mammal-eating killer whales. A paper released by Pitman et al. in 2016 suggested that the humpback whales responded to the hunting vocalizations of killer whales. Mammal eating killer whales often targeted whale calves of different species. Though humpback whales were also observed protecting pinnipeds as well as other cetacean species.”, explains Emer. Surprisingly, humpback whales do not benefit from rescuing other animals – truly an example of an altruist.
How are they similar to us?
Emer also mentions that evolutionarily our common ancestor dates back hundreds of millions of years ago. As mammals, we share many characteristics. “On a behavioral level, Humpback whales are known to be sentient and sapient animals that, amongst many other things, exhibit cooperation with other individuals. Also, have distinct cultures between populations, and have even been observed to grieve.” Isn’t it amazing?!
On a more physiological level, they have adapted to life predominantly underwater, yet we share basic anatomy. The phenomenon known as the Mammalian Diving Reflex is an intrinsic reaction in mammals. Including humans, to water submersion, to optimize oxygen storage and usage while underwater. As air-breathing animals, this response is our protective measure. People who practice freediving sport will spend considerable amounts of time training to harness and exploit the Diving Reflex to push human physical boundaries. Which marine mammals have evolved over millennia.
Meeting a whale
When I ask Catherine what she likes the most about her job, she says: “One thing that stands out to me is watching people fall in love with the whales. On the first day of a trip with Conscious Breath Adventures in the Dominican Republic, they will be vaguely interested in our research. And by the end, they are hanging on to our every word. Desperate to learn more, know how to protect and conserve their new friends. It’s so inspiring to see the impact the meeting with a whale can have on a human’s outlook on life. It is so rewarding being able to help people fall in love with the ocean.”
Emer McCoy is a zoologist from London. Started her marine biology career collecting data on humpback whales in the Dominican Republic.
Catherine Cushenan is a shark ecologist, freediver, and drone pilot. Has been a whale watching guide for several years across the world. Recently started guiding in-water humpback whale encounters in the Dominican Republic (with Conscious Breath Adventures).
How can everyone contribute to ocean conservation?
- Eat sustainable fish products – search for MSC or ASC logos.
- Reduce carbon emissions – walk, bike, carpool, and use public transport more, buy less new products, recycle as much as possible.
- Travel smarter – fly less (guess not a problem now!), research greenways to experience new places.
- Skip single-use plastics.
- Help NGOs to protect the ocean with your skills.