project news

We’re having a whale of a time!

News item submitted by Amelia Davies
News item dated 19 Aug 2010

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It has been a busy time in Fiji recently. Not only has the island of Gau been inundated with volunteers, but the surrounding seas have also seen an increase in activity, as volunteers sighted a pod of Humpback whales of the southern coast.

The Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a species of baleen whale characterised by its long pectoral fins, knobbly head and magical whale ‘songs’. These complex sequences of moans, howls and cries travel great distances and typically last for 10-20 minutes. Although females can vocalize, only male Humpback whales can ‘sing’. Scientists are currently studying these sounds to decipher their meaning. Theories suggested that the primary purpose for this extraordinary behaviour is to communicate with others and/or to attract females.

Adults typically weigh 40 tons (an equivalent weight of 11 elephants!) and range from 48 to 62.5 ft. Despite their enormous proportions, they feed on tiny shrimp like krill, plankton and fish during the summer months, where they can be found in polar waters. In the winter they migrate to tropical/sub tropical waters to breed and raise their young, surviving only on fat reserves accumulated during the summer.

The bond between mothers and calves is strong. They often swim close together, touching one another with their fins in what appears to be gestures of affection. Females typically nurse their young for a year, but it can take at least 10 years for a calf to reach maturity!

Like other large whales, the Humpback whale was targeted for the whaling industry. Before the whaling moratorium was introduced in 1966 populations fell by 90%. Despite a population recovery to at least 80,000 individuals, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships and noise pollution remains a concern for Humpback populations.

Humpbacks are now sought by whale-watchers as they are easily identifiable, approachable and curious - often approaching whale watching boats directly.
Sighting one of these gentle giants is a desirable and unforgettable experience for anyone and so the volunteers in Fiji have been extremely lucky!