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article imageWhere are the humpbacks? — Hawaii still waiting for winter return

By Karen Graham     Jan 2, 2016 in Environment
Hawaii have been anticipating the return of the Humpback whales since December, the usual start of the season, but some experts are wondering why the world's largest whales are taking so long to reach their winter breeding grounds.
Popular with whale-watchers and an important source of income for Hawaiian tour operators, the giant baleen whales feed only in the summer in Polar waters and migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed and give birth in the winter when they fast and live off their fat reserves.
The humpback whale season usually starts in December in Hawaii, lasting into May, according to the Guardian, but officials with the Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary are saying they have been hard to spot, so far.
Ed Lyman, a Maui-based marine biologist and response coordinator for the sanctuary says, “This isn’t a concern, but it’s of interest. One theory was that something like this happened as whales increased. It’s a product of their success."
Lyman recounted going on a distress call for a humpback calf that appeared to be in distress on Christmas Eve. “What I’m seeing out there right now I would have expected a month ago. We’ve just seen a handful of whales.”
However, scientists won't know the actual numbers for some time yet because the official whale count last doesn't begin until the last Saturday of January, February and March. The former sanctuary co-manager Jeff Walters said, “They don’t necessarily show up in the same place at the same time every year."
The first humpback whale of the season was spotted on September 29 by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vessel. Usually, over 10,000 of the gentle giants make the winter journey from Alaska to the warmer waters off Hawaii, traveling in groups of three or four.
The range and habitat of the humpback whale
There are four global populations of humpbacks, the North Pacific, Atlantic, Southern Ocean, and Indian Ocean populations. Interestingly, each population is distinct, too. Generally, the humpback is considered a migratory animal, but there are exceptions.
One population in the Arabian Sea is distinct because they don't migrate, remaining in the tropical waters year-round. The Indian Ocean group, a global population, also does not migrate, but this is because of that ocean's northern coastline. But of all the mammals on Earth, the humpback is undoubtedly the world's most-traveled species, migrating as much as 25,000 km (16,000 mi) yearly, according to the American Cetacean Society.
The North Atlantic population's feeding areas range from Scandinavia to New England, and they travel to the Caribbean and Cape Verde during the breeding season. Humpbacks in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans often breed off the coast of Brazil, as well the coast of central, southern and southeastern Africa.
The large Pacific population of humpbacks have feeding grounds ranging from California to the Bering Sea. Digital Journalist, Marcus Hondro reported on November 18, 2015, the exciting discovery that humpback whales in record numbers had been seen along the West Coast's Salish Sea, in southwestern B.C. and northwestern Washington State.
Humpbacks use their powerful tali fins to breach the surface and lunge feed on anchovies.
Humpbacks use their powerful tali fins to breach the surface and lunge feed on anchovies.
Wanda Ayers
Where are the whales?
Maybe, as some concerned officials are saying, the whales are just spending more time feeding in northern waters, reports CTV News. Lyman says, “With more animals, they’re competing against each other for that food resource, and it takes an energy of reserve to make that long migration over 2,000 miles."
We will all feel better when the humpbacks start to show up off the coast of Hawaii, but there is still some concern, especially with the number of incidents that occurred in 2015 with whales. In 2015, humpbacks and sperm whales became entangled in nets and stranded on beaches off California. Another 30 whales, including fin whales and humpbacks, died in an “unusual mortality event” off Alaska, and 337 sei whales were found dead on the Chilean coast, the largest whale stranding on record.
More about Humpback whales, Hawaii, winter breeding grounds, Endangered species, baleen whale
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