the Humpback Whales in Puerto Vallarta
by Griffin Page
Naturalist and Eco-guide
Every year, the most acrobatic of all whales,
the Humpback, visits the Bay of Banderas in order to reproduce
and give birth. Its arrival begins around mid to late October
and extends to around end of March. During that time, some
female whales give birth while others reproduce before returning
to their feeding grounds in the north.
It is believed that these animals date back to the Eocene
era, some 60 - 65 millions years ago and belong to the family
of early mammals known as the Mesonychids. Mesonychids,
it is also believed, were some of the first land dwelling
mammals. These ancestral creatures were furry, had four
legs, a tail, carried their fetuses until birth and nursed
their young. Perhaps, they eventually discovered food was
more easily available in shallow waters of the oceans, and
through the long process of evolution, began adapting to
aquatic environments to finally leave land behind them for
good. Many links are still missing in this theory just as
we are missing links in the theory of our own human evolution.
Humpback whale is one of the most studied marine mammal
and yet, we still know very little. One important trait
of the Humpback whale is that each individual has a unique
color pattern on the underside of its tail (more properly
called a fluke), and which displays designs in varying tones
of white, grey and black. This particular characteristic
makes it possible for us to identify each different individual
by simply taking a clear photo of the underside of its fluke.
This way, we can, over many years' time, know who is where
and doing what with whom. This also permits us to count
and estimate the number of individuals of a certain population.
A little nosy aren't we? Well, let us be nosy because the
more we know and understand about these magnificent creatures,
the more apt we are at protecting them and assuring their
survival as a species.
A little bit of
The earliest reports of whale sightings
in the Bay of Banderas, date back to 1858 and mention the
presence of mainly 2 species: the Humpback and the Grey
whale. As a matter of fact, the bay was called Humpback
Bay in the mid 1800's. Unfortunately, these reports come
from log books of American whaling ships.
species of whales were hunted from the mid 1800's to mid
1900's. The humpback suffered great losses due to his closeness
to shores and his relatively slow speed. At the time, a
lot of commerce depended on whale based products. It was
hunted for meat, oil which they used in street lamps and
machinery lubrication, and the baleens were used to make
corsets so the ladies could display a perfect hourglass
In 1946, the International Whaling Commission was created
to regulate whaling, but some nations didn't abide by the
rules. Thankfully, a ban on all commercial whaling took
effect in 1966 due to the growing public and scientific
concern. It is estimated that the original population was
numbered at around 100,000 individuals. By the 1960's, it
had plummeted to a mere 6000 individuals. Today, the world's
population is estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000.
The Humpback whale is still listed as endangered in the
IUCN Red Data Book.
by countries who ignore the ban.
Entanglement in fishing nets and ocean garbage.
Collision with ships.
Pollution from runoff and coastal developments.
Competition with commercial fisheries for food.
Noise pollution from boats, sonars, blasts, underwater mining
Whale watching activities performed without regard to rules
the bay of Banderas, around 644 different individuals have
been photo identified and included in the FIBB catalog (Foto
Identificación Bahía de Banderas). Some biologists,
organizations, eco-tour companies and their guides participate
in the conservation of this species by taking pictures of
the underside of Humpback whale flukes and send them to
Astrid Frisch Jórdan who coordinates this catalog.
Why is it called
The name actually comes
from its diving technique. Of all the marine mammals, this
is the one that can arch its back so much when it dives
down that it actually creates a hump. And of course, hence
came the name.
Acrobats of the sea
The humpback whale's behavior is most often
playful and the show they perform for us at times can be
quite spectacular. Let us examine some of the behaviors
that have made the Humpback whale so popular.
This involves the whale diving straight down and then, turning
around and swimming at top speed (18mph / 26kmph), straight
up towards the surface. As the whale reaches the surface,
his body then shoots out of the water, sometimes doing a
half turn while extending his flippers outwards and landing
with a huge splash. You can imagine the sound and visual
impression a 30 to 50 ton whale crashing in the water can
create. It is believed that this may occur because the whale
is either playing, trying to rid himself of parasites (such
as sea lice or barnacles), trying to communicate by displaying
his strenght, size and power or to attract the attention
of other whales.
slapping: This means the whale is sideways, with its fin
out of the water while he repeatedly slaps at the water's
surface, creating splashes. Again, this may be for play,
communication or used in fights during courtship groups.
In this last case, males will hit one another with their
barnacle ladden fins, causing injuries that may even occasionnally
slapping: This case is similar to fin slapping where instead
of the fin, the fluke is the part that is slapping at the
water, while the whale's body is otherwise submerged. The
reasons are also similar to fin slapping except that sometimes,
it can also be a display of frustration or anger as in the
case of a whale being harrassed by boats or trying to ward
off potential male competitors when a female in heat is
I like to call this particular behavior "people watching";
as we do whale watching, they also watch us. For this, they
slowly come out of the water up to their pectoral fins and
have a look around by rotating a little while the head is
above water. After a little while, they slowly go back down
the way they came.
is a barnacle? It's a ocean creature that lives in a shell
and attaches itself to the bodies of certain marine mammals,
rocks or other organisms such as in the case of the Grey
whales or the Humpback whales.
Their enchanting music
Perhaps in the past, you have heard recordings
of enchanting underwater music. Maybe, you didn't know that
some of these songs are performed by sexually mature male
humpbacks and that these only occur in the mating grounds.
For this reason, it is believed that males sing in order
to impress and attract females
but this theory has not been proven as of yet.
Why do we call it a song and not communication? Well first,
these melodies are just that, melodies. They have verses
and are structured just like our music. They have a certain
repetition pattern and if you listen carefully and long
enough, you can discern the similarities to our own musical
compositions. Second, every year, the same song is repeated
with a slight variation; a verse is changed, a new part
is incorporated. Every 5 to 8 years, you end up with an
entirely new composition.
We know that whales do not sing in their feeding grounds
or during the migration south and that they do not travel
in pods either. Therefore, some interesting questions arise:
How come all the whales from a same population sing the
same song, whether they are in Hawaii, Banderas' Bay or
Revillagigedo Islands, and how do they learn it? Perhaps
we should reassess our definition of a pod. Possibly, for
the humpback, traveling in a pod may mean traveling kilometers
However, just like us humans, there are good singers and
well, some that are not so good. It appears that maturity
and experience has a lot to do with how well and how long
a whale can sing. Typically, a male Humpback will sing for
approximately 20 minutes, surface for a few breaths and
go back down to resume his vocalization. This process can
be repeated for a very long time. The usual positioning
of a singer is to be motionless, head facing down towards
the bottom of the ocean - for better sound distribution
- with its fins slightly open to about 45 degrees. Humpbacks
can remain underwater without breathing for a maximum of
about 35 - 40 minutes and certain whales can sing for up
to 30 minutes.
Migration of the
Three different populations of Humpbacks
inhabit the world's waters. First, we have the North Atlantic
population, the North Pacific population and then there's
the South Pacific / Atlantic population. The one that we
will specifically discuss in this newsletter is the North
Pacific population. This is the one that migrates
here to Banderas' Bay. The migration cycle takes about a
year. The Humpback will typically spend 3 to 4 months at
their feeding grounds. These feeding grounds extends from
the west coast of California, Canada up to the Golf of Alaska
and the Bering sea. They principally feed on krill, plankton,
shrimp, sardines and seem to love herring for its high content
of fat. During that time, they will eat astonishing amounts
of food every day in order to build up their layer of blubber
(fat) that will protect them from the cold waters and prepare
them for the migration south where food is almost non-existent.
From there, they will travel more than 10,000 kilometers
south to their breeding grounds. This trip can take between
2 to 3 months.
The North Pacific population will choose
to migrate to one of 3 general areas in which they will
either give birth, reproduce on just tag along for the ride
as may be the case for those whales that have not yet reached
sexual maturity. The reason for this long migration is the
need for more temperate waters, as the newborn calves are
born with a very thin layer of blubber and hence, could
not support the cold waters of the North. The 3 most popular
breeding areas are: Bay of Banderas, Islas Revillagigedo
and Hawaii. Humpbacks may also visit the waters of the Sea
of Cortez, off the east coast of the Baja California Peninsula,
but this is known as a transitional place. They will spend
an average of 3 to 4 months in these grounds. In Banderas'
Bay, the average stay for one particular whale is around
11 days but of course, mothers and their newborn calves
will remain longer. As these animals constantly travel,
they usually come and go in and out of the bay area, so
one particular whale can be seen over and over at different
intervals during the reproduction season. Then, they return
to the north to feed again in preparation for next years
migration. And so, the cycle repeats.
Loving and caring
Calves are born tail first, measure an
average of 16 feet (5 mts.) and weight around 3 tons (1,400
tend to sink and have a little bit of difficulty swimming
at first. The mother tends to support it with her back and
push him up to the surface regularly for him to breathe.
Mind you, being aquatic animals, it doesn't take him long
to acquire the necessary coordination that enables him to
swim on his own.
He also soon discovers that his mother's huge tail creates
a kind of counter current which follows her and so, he learns
to place himself in that area in order to hitch a ride.
This allows him to keep pace with the adults during the
migration which is a dangerous time for newborns.
relationship between mother and calf is a tight one. They
remain close to each other throughout the first year. He
will get nourishment by nudging the lower ventral part of
his mother's body which will then release a very rich and
thick milk similar in consistency to cottage cheese. A baby
Humpback whale drinks 75 gallons (284 liters) of milk a
day, the equivalent to that which is consumed by a human
baby in one year! He will double in size and weight in the
first year alone. Mothers are very loving and caring with
their offsprings. Their huge pectoral fins, used as tactile
organs, play an important role in the mother/calf relationship.
Females give birth to only one baby at a time and take care
of their young for a full year. Since gestation is also
almost a year (11 - 11.5 months), they generally give birth
every 2 to 3 years.
Courtship groups in Bay of Banderas
One of the most spectacular behavior is
that of courtship. This only occurs in their mating grounds
and since the Bay of Banderas is one of their elected areas
for reproduction, we have the precious opportunity to be
able to study this particular behavior further, right here
aggressive battle for a single female is most impressive.
It may involve 2 or up to 18 or more whales ferociously
fighting for that one female heading the group. Often, one
male has already been able to position himself next to the
female. Being next to the female is where they want to be,
so all the other whales are trying to move up to the front
to dislodge their competitor. This is done by pushing and
shoving, hitting eachother with their barnacle ladden fins
and tails. They may also do what we call a head slap which
means one whale will elevate his head slightly above the
water to then forcefully shove it back down over the back
of another whale. Since their chins are also usually full
of sharp barnacles, they can cut eachother pretty badly
at times. Some smaller or weaker whales will leave the group
quite early in this battle while other may arrive later,
fresh and strong and begin to fight their way up. The idea
is that only the strongest male will remain til the end
and will get the chance to reproduce with the female. This
battle may last less than one hour or may go on for hours.
One way of knowing if you are witnessing
a courtship group is to count the whales that are all in
one group, to watch their swimming pattern and estimate
their speed. During a courtship battle, the female that
leads will swim much faster than usual and change direction
quite often. They will also remain closer to the surface
and breathe more often as they are exerting alot of energy
during this time and have a greater need for oxygen. The
surface waters may appear to be boiling; this occurs because
of the activity below, the splashing caused by the tails
and fins and the air that is occasionnally released by males.
Nasty scars are the result of repeated participation in
such groups. This is why some have the misguided tendency
of saying that a whale with many scars on his back is a
male. But let it be known that scientifically, only a female
accompanied by her calf or a singing whale can be positively
identified for sex, unless you are dealing with a very well
known whale, one who has been studied over many years time
and has since been identified as male or female.
The Humpback whale uses different techniques
in order to feed. They are considered "gulpers"
as all rorquals are. This, because of their numerous throat
grooves that expand when taking huge gulps of food ladden
water. With their tongues, they then push the water out
and only the food remains.
Four different styles of feeding have been
This involves approaching the food from the bottom or the
side while the mouth is wide open.
In this case, they use their long pectoral fins to herd
all the food in front of them.
In making use of their tails, a powerful slash brings the
food to the front of the whale.
This is the most impressive of all techniques and leaves
one to ponder on the level of intelligence and social structure
of these incredible whales.
technique may involve one single individual or up to 16
whales. While under the water, they form a circle and swim
one behing the other while releasing air creating a wall
of bubbles that trap food in the center as efficiently as
a fisherman's net. The leader then emits a high piercing
sound. This stuns the fish and forces them to gather in
an even smaller bunch at the center. This is also a signal
to all the other whales that it's time to surface, all at
the same time, from the bottom up to gulp all the food collected
through this technique. Amazing!
And if this isn't incredible enough, it has been shown,
through many years of study, that each time a particular
bubble net is formed, it includes the same individuals and
they position themselves at their same designated positions.
Somewhat like us at the diner table, we all have our own
seats and so do they! Things that make you go Hmmmmmm....
Please help us save
this awesome animal from extinction
The whale watching industry has now replaced
whaling. In many areas it plays a crucial role for the local
economy. This should be a good thing, but one needs to be
very careful when choosing their whale watching tour provider.
Whale watching, if improperly conducted, can also be detrimental
to the survival of the whales.
have seen whales with nasty lacerations from boat propellers;
some don't survive the injuries. I have seen a baby whale
crazily leaping repeatedly out of the water in a desperate
attempt to tell his mother that he couldn't keep up as she
was swimming too fast while trying to evade too many boats
that were well inside the legal distance for whale watching.
The spectators of these boats were all applauding as if
this was the greatest show they had ever seen, completely
oblivious to the reality of the fear they were instilling
on these beautiful creatures.
This doesn't have to happen. If you care
about the survival of these wonderful creatures, here are
a few questions you can ask the company you plan on calling
on. This will help you evaluate the level of professionalism
and integrity of the company in regards to conservation
of this species.
- Do they have the proper accreditation
and permits for the activity in question from the Secretary
of Tourism? Do they provide experienced or trained guides
that are aware of the regulations and abide by them?
Because the accredited companies incur a cost related to
their permits, they will usually charge more than those