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On the Lookout for Whales [pictures and video]

Whales migrate BVI waters

By Dr. Shannon Gore; photos by Armando Jenik

As we move through these winter and spring months, some of us might just get lucky enough to witness a whale sighting from the comfort of a soft-sand beach, or cruising curiously near our boats. Many different species of whales are found year-round throughout the Caribbean but from December to April, humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrate from the North Atlantic down to the Caribbean in order to mate and breed. The Caribbean’s distribution of humpback whales extends from Venezuela to the Turks & Caicos Islands. They’re also visible in Hawaii, Baja California and the Mariana Islands. One of the most concentrated breeding areas is in the Silver Banks of the Dominican Republic but humpback whales are also often seen across the Virgin Islands during the mating and breeding season. In recent years, whales sightings have been reported from Tortola’s north shore beaches, and in the Sir Francis Drake Channel.

A mother humpback and her calf migrate through waters near Josiahs Bay.

Because of their colossal size (up to 50 feet in length and 40 tons) and acrobatic behaviours of throwing themselves completely out of the water (breaching) or slapping their flukes (tails) and pectoral fins on the surface of the water, these magnificent whales are easily observed throughout the territory, especially along the northern shores of Tortola and Anegada.

Not only are a whale’s playful antics spectacular to watch, hearing them underwater, especially while scuba diving, is just as impressive.

These eerie yet beautiful songs can be heard up to 10 miles away underwater without the use of hydrophones.

Mother and calf humpback swim through Josiahs Bay.

About the humpback

Humpback whales belong to the taxonomic order Cetacea. Cetaceans are divided into two suborders, baleen whales (Mysticeti) and toothed whales (Odontoceti). Within the baleen whale suborder are the rorqual whales (tube-throated). Humpbacks are rorqual whales and are one of the 12 species of baleen whales.

Humpbacks and other baleen whales are named for their most characteristic feature. Baleen is composed of keratin, the same protein material that makes up human fingernails. Plates of baleen hang in a comb-like fashion from the upper jaw. The inner edge of each plate has a fringe of long, frayed filaments. These filaments act as a strainer when water passes through the mouth. The filaments filter krill (small crustaceans), plankton (small plants & animals that float with the ocean currents) and small fish out of the water and the material is scraped off by the tongue and swallowed.

Humpbacks also use a feeding technique called bubble netting. In bubble netting, the whale exhales a stream of air bubbles underwater as it swims in a circle. This practice tends to congregate the krill and plankton inside a curtain-like column of rising bubbles. The whale, with its mouth open, then moves up through the column and consumes the krill and plankton.

A right whale tips its tail in Argentinian waters.

AWESOME! Footage of whales breaching off Jost Van Dyke. Provided by Jason Wilder Siska on Feb 21, 2013.

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CHECK IT OUT–Vintage footage of Armando Jenik swimming with right whales:

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