Friday, February 28, 2014

What About All These Humpbacks?!

Tuesday morning (25 February) brought another humpback whale sighting, this time in Beverly Beach, near the two campgrounds and City Hall. Martha Demers of Team 3 was the first to spot the large black shape around 10:30 am. An alert observer at the Flagler-by-the-Sea campground also called Julie at the Marine Resources Council hotline. In previous seasons, humpback sightings seemed more common early in the season (November, December) and late in the season (March,April). To date, we have had several humpback sightings throughout this season. Who are these humpbacks and what are they doing here?

On the 25th Becki Smith took photos (image below) and we shared them with our colleagues at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), who have collected humpback whale photos for a number of years and have assembled an informal catalog
of the whales seen by the SE US survey teams. Humpbacks are usually photographically identified by the pattern of white splotches on the underside of their tail and the formal catalog is curated by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS) on Cape Cod. But, unlike the situation in New England, the humpbacks here rarely raise their flukes. So we (collectively) have focused on dorsal fins and any body scars. Happily, these photos have been sufficient to distinguish between most individuals and indicate that some humpbacks are making repeat appearances. For example, yesterday’s humpback has a distinctive dorsal fin, and has been sighted twice before, on 30 December off Georgia and 9 February off Jacksonville Beach. Humpbacks, like right whales, appear to move around throughout the habitat.

Humpbacks are generally the same length as right whales, but are more slender and weigh less. Their more stream-lined shape allows them to swim faster and, thus, chase faster prey, such as the small bait fish that school in our coastal waters. Most of the SE US humpbacks appear to be juveniles. The PCCS has a dorsal fin catalog for humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine and has matched one humpback from the FWC catalog to a Gulf of Maine humpback. Hopefully, there will be more matches in the future and we will begin to have a better understanding of the humpbacks visiting our coastline.

Note: For a more complete description of humpback distinguishing characteristics with photos, see the “Right Whale Team Handbook” available as a PDF on