When you hear the word giant, I guess the first things that pop to mind are fairy tales, children’s books and maybe “Lord of the Rings.” Yes, I read the books too. But I’m referring to actual giants, who live among us. Yes? No? I’m talking about Whales!
They occupy every ocean, north to south, and east to west. There are many different species; 86 to be exact, including dolphins and porpoises. Whales are divided into two main groups – “Toothed whales”, usually smaller with one blow hole, and “Baleen Whales”, the big guys with two blow holes.
Toothed means they have teeth and they rely on bigger fish and other larger animals. Baleen whales eat krill and small fish by filtering water through a plate in their upper jaw and swallow the leftovers. The baleen plate is sieve-like, made from keratin, the same substance found in human fingernails and hair. It’s quite funny to think that the biggest animals in the world depend on the smallest. Wait! but isn’t this article about giants? Ohh yes sorry, it is about giants, about a very gentle one in particular! The Humpback Whale, or as they call it on the street – “Megaptera Novaeangliae”.
The Dream: Swimming with Humpback Whales
My biggest dream (I think) was getting in the water and swimming alongside one of these magnificent animals. There are only a handful of those places in the world where you can actually swim with humpback whales! One of them is a tiny island nation called “Niue” (doesn’t appear on every map!). Located in the heart of the South Pacific, you can find this one rock in the middle of Humpback migration route, right between the Cook Islands and Tonga.
The Humpback Whale
Humpbacks are the 5th biggest whale in the world. Ranging between 12m-16m (40-52ft), weighing around 36 tons. They can hold their breath for about 40 min and live to an average of 50 years old, though older whales had been recorded. You don’t get this title by munching on carrots and lettuce all day! During summer time, they feed in the poles, consuming 1-2 tons of krill each day! While migrating, they don’t feed at all, unless an opportunity arises (Would you miss a meal that is straight in front of you?!) …This means they don’t eat for 7 months!! (no worries mate)
When the water starts to get “cooler” in the poles (it’s always cold for me, but what do I know) they travel to the warm waters of the tropics where they breed and give birth. Humpbacks are one of the most migratory animals in the world. They swim massive distances from the poles to the tropics and back every year! A distance of some 5,000km each way. Lately, it was discovered that some whales in the South Pacific, travel an additional 3000km to a specific area in the South Pole, which makes it 13,000km round trip! This is yet to be discovered why.
Once arriving in the tropics, it’s time to leisure! Rest, play and mate. Finding a mate isn’t easy (you know how it is…). They do this in different ways like breaching (launching their body’s out of the water), following females and escorting them in a chance of mating, “Heat runs” which is an unbelievable sight, where a large number of males are led by one female. It’s fast and furious, even better than the movie! Males are bumping into each other in purpose of staying the closest to the female. Singing is believed to be related to mating behaviours, but only the males sing and when you hear this first hand, your life will change forever!!
Gestation takes 11 months. After growing this massive thing in her belly, it needs to come out. Giving birth to a 3-5-meter baby who weighs about 1 ton is something normal in the whale world. After that, the needy fella is consuming around 100L of milk a day gaining 50kg in fat every day!! Reminding you mommy isn’t eating at all…THAT IS CRAZY!
I remember the first time I saw a whale. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and I was leading a group to one of the underwater caves found in Niue. Suddenly, 3 whales started breaching in front of me on their way towards “Alofi”, the main town on the island. When you see this 36-ton animal out of the water, everything turns into slow motion. I grabbed the radio, and called the dive shop to let them know the whales are here!!
The whale season has started!! It was time to get in the water with them! At first, we scout. I would wake up early in the morning, head to the lookout point and try to spot a spout, that’s when whale exhales. It’s a good technique to locate them from a distance. We get all the gear ready and head out! Anticipation and excitement are peaking!! After some time, traveling to their favorite spots (yes, they have their spots) we find them!
We get ready, masks, fins, snorkel and a harpoon! Just kidding, a CAMERA!! We slide quietly into the water, making sure were approaching very slowly and keeping our distance. Visibility is mesmerizing, 50-70m (160-230ft) (no biggie, just another day in Niue). As we approach, big shadows appear, slowly forming shape and texture. These whales were logging – resting at one spot, dropping down to about 20m for 15-20min and then coming up roughly at the same spot for air, perfect! You float there in the deep blue, listen to their music while you’re at it… Suddenly they start moving, and they know you’re there! Whoosh…Whoosh, a massive, yet very much aware animal starts to ascend.
Every encounter I’ve had with these gentle giants was different, but on most occasions, they were so curious they had to come for a closer look. Slowly, those relatively small things you were staring at, get larger and larger until you realize how big they are (8-12 times bigger than you), just the pectoral fin is bigger than your average car! Slowly, but like a professional dancer, they pass by, inches away from touching you, checking you out. Then, in that moment, everything stops. When you share a glance into their big brown eyes, there’s an understanding. Something is looking back into your eyes. You are sharing a moment with a being that is aware and curious as much as you are, and after that second, you’re not the same person anymore (did I say that already?).
You connect on a level that is hard to explain. My favorite encounter moments are with a mother and a calve. Nothing tops that, when BIG mama lets her baby approach, you understand you’ve been approved. “Who are these weird creatures floating on the surface all clumsy and funny looking?”, he probably asks himself. One quick play and he’s off again! Pure happiness!!!! The faces of everyone on the boat after the amazing interaction is priceless!
Whaling and Conservation
Humpback has been hunted commercially since 18th century. Mainly by the soviets who reduced global population by over 90%. In 1946, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded to oversee the industry. They banned commercial humpback whaling in 1966 to prevent extinction. The Japanese kept on hunting them. In March (2014) International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled Japan’s whaling program in the Antarctic was not for scientific purposes & all permits were revoked. They still hunt them to this day, even though it’s illegal.
Currently, there are an estimated 80,000 humpback whales worldwide and the whole Antarctic population estimated around 50,000. Around the South Pacific there are about only 5000 that are migrating through (How lucky are we to even be able to see them!!).
Although whaling is no longer such a threat, whales of all species are at risk of entanglement in fishing gear, boat strike, global climate change and competition from fishing industry.
There are, however, several ongoing efforts from marine conservation groups to monitor and protect whale populations worldwide.
There is so much more to be told about these beautiful creatures, but we’ll save some for the next chapter. Until then, you can keep dreaming about whales, or join us on a marine conservation diving trip in Australia and swim with whales firsthand!