Understanding the humpbacks Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2007 00:00

Understanding the humpbacks

By Nancy Acton , Royal Gazette, 1 Jun 2007

Just cruisin' : This humpback whale skims along on its back as it enjoys Bermuda's warm waters on its way to its feeding grounds in the North Atlantic. The mammal was less than a foot away from photographer Andrew Stevenson's lens

By a nose A humpback whale is captured by photographer Andrew Stevenson just as it is about to break through the surface of local waters. The whale was within three feet of his lens.

Nature's beauty: The sun-dappled flukes of a humpback whale migrating through Bermuda waters on the way to its feeding grounds in the North Atlantic make an eye-catching sight.


The annual migration of humpback whales through Bermuda waters on their annual journey north from the Caribbean never fails to cause excitement among residents and visitors alike. To get a closer look, many take advantage of whale watching boat trips, while others seek vantage points along the South Shore to watch them swimming, playing and breaching.

Author and photographer Andrew Stevenson, however, has a different approach. Currently embarked on a three-year project to make a 50-minute documentary film about the whales, he and his 40-pound camera get right into the water with the whales, which makes for stunning footage.

It is not just as a cinematographer that he functions, however. Mr. Stevenson also studies these magnificent mammals’ behaviour, markings and sizes, and captures the information on film. He also stores a great deal of detail in his mind, and works closely with local and overseas scientific agencies on matters of research and the mutual exchange of information.

In fact, it was Mr. Stevenson who confirmed this year that the humpbacks were feeding in local waters. Previously it had been thought that the requisite krill were not present in the sea around Bermuda, even though fishermen told him otherwise.

Asked by scientists at Bermuda Institute for Oceanographic Studies (BIOS) to bring back samples of water where whales might be feeding, the cameraman went to the Sally Tucker area of Somerset, where there is often an upwelling of currents from the ocean bottom and took a sample of the foam floating along a ripple line on the water, and sure enough it was found to contain an abundance of animals, including decapods, fish eggs and newly-hatched fish which were perfect food for giving the starving whales an energy boost to continue their journey north.

Now Mr. Stevenson has received word that another of his efforts in the course of making his film has borne fruit.

Because it is difficult to tag humpback whales — sometimes referred to as ‘the great winged New Englander’ — researchers and people like Mr. Stevenson record or photograph the markings on the lower side of the whale’s tail fluke, which are thought to be as unique as finger prints.

One of the whales he recorded on film off the Challenger Banks a few months ago has now been positively identified by researcher Rosemary Seton of the College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale Marine Mammal Research Lab.

Running three of Mr. Stevenson’s whales through the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue, which contains over 5,600 individual specimens from all over the North Atlantic, she successfully matched the type 4 fluke with one of them, and has officially confirmed that what Mr. Stevenson photographed was HWC No. 1061.

“We have known (this whale) since 1978, and it has a lengthy sighting and history,” Ms Seton said.

First sighted off Baie de Verde Harbour, Newfoundland in July 1978, it has been tracked over the years to Salvage, Newfoundland; Silver Bank in the West Indies (twice), Witless Bay in Newfoundland (twice), where Ms Seton actually saw it herself, Sweet Bay in Newfoundland, and now by Mr. Stevenson in Bermuda in March.

“From repeated migrations back to Newfoundland, it appears that that is its feeding ground, and the sighting history reveals that the whale is a minimum of 29 years of age,” Ms Seton said.

In fact, based on the colour of the flukes in the 1978 photograph, the researcher said it No. 1061 was probably “at least 30 years old”.

“What a wonderful thing to know the history behind this whale,” a clearly delighted Mr. Stevenson says. “I can remember the whale as we followed it for a couple of hours along the South Shore.

“The more we understand whales and their underwater lives, the more respect we have for them. I feel very privileged to have been able to observe these magnificent animals at close quarters in the water, to look them in the eye, and to know that here is an intelligent, gentle creature from whom we have much to learn.

“It seems to me abhorrent that in this day and age Japan, Iceland and Norway still insist on ignoring the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling, either by ignoring the guidelines, or under the guise of science. It is nothing short of barbaric to kill these animals on trumped-up excuses of cultural pride, or just for the sake of their meat.”

Certainly, Mr. Stevenson is angry with the decisions being made at the annual International Whaling Commission meetings currently underway in Alaska.

Greenland wants to expand its indigenous whale catch limits by 25 a year to 200, and also create a hunting quota of ten humpback and two bowhead whales, and Iceland is also asking for quotas for the first time on humpback whales.

The IWC has just granted the Grenadines and St.Vincent in the Caribbean renewal of their five-year catch quota to kill four humpback whales per year.

“That’s 20 whales in total,” Mr. Stevenson says. “It is hard for me to imagine that the same gentle humpback whale that swam with me for two hours could be killed for its meat down in the Caribbean, or around Greenland or Iceland. These humpbacks migrate past Bermuda on their way from their breeding grounds down in the Caribbean to their feeding grounds in the North Atlantic. By killing them, these nations deprive the rest of us the pleasure of peacefully observing these magnificent creatures.”

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