Although we will never know with any certainty just how many Humpbacks swam the world’s oceans before whaling began in earnest in the seventeenth century, the latest genetic estimates suggest the number may have been as high as 240 million animals. Today there are less than 9,000.
Contemplating the sheer scale of that loss leaves me dizzy with despair and not least because the slaughter still goes on. Despite the international clamour for conservation, Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to defy the global whaling ban, killing whales with impunity and seeking to defend their indefensible actions with lies and disingenuous claims about ‘scientific research’.
One might well imagine that by now scientists must know all there is to know about the physiology of whales. And yet I wonder how many of those who kill whales in the name of science have ever left the lofty security of their harpoon platforms and actually entered the water with the leviathan?
How many have listened to their strange and haunting submarine songs, observed their gentle intelligent curiosity and the extraordinary tenderness they display toward their mates and their offspring? I suspect the answer is not many.
Scott Portelli has done all this and more. He is not a scientist. He is a wildlife photographer and over the past 10 years he has probably spent more time in the water with Humpback Whales than just about anyone else in the world.
The result of all that direct access is a truly extraordinary portfolio of photographic images that capture the sublime essence of these magnificent creatures. The best of his photographs have been published in a large format, lavishly illustrated book: Whales in Paradise. Perhaps if he sent copies to the whaling diehards in Tokyo, Oslo and Reykjavik we might achieve the kind of compassionate consensus that has so far eluded the International Whaling Commission.
Portelli’s magical images provide us with a rare opportunity to closely observe one of the biggest creatures on the planet. Looking at these enormous animals I felt the full force of their gaze and shivered at the realisation that their dark eyes were also closely observing us. As Portelli explains, they have a lot to teach us.
Humpbacks – so called because of the distinctive way in which they arch their backs and expose their dorsal fin in diving – migrate from polar seas to the warmth of shallow tropical waters where they mate and calve. The Humpbacks that make the 11,500km winter journey from Antarctica to Tonga and back again in summer are genetically distinct from those we see along Australia’s eastern seaboard or in New Caledonian or French Polynesian waters. By royal decree whaling ceased in Tongan waters in 1978 and Humpback numbers are only now beginning to recover.
Although Humpbacks live on krill and other small crustaceans in cold Antarctic waters, little if any food is consumed during their long migrations to and residence in the tropical breeding grounds. Even the massive cows nursing their 4.3 metre calves go without food until their return to the plankton-rich seas in the Antarctic summer.
Humpbacks are huge. The average length of an adult female is 15 metres and for a male 14 metres with an average weight of 40,000kg. Some reach 19 metres in length and weigh in excess of 48,000kg. Although it is not known for certain, Humpbacks are thought to have a lifespan of at least 50 years. Physical maturity is reached within 10 to 12 years.
Southern Hemisphere Humpbacks tend to have a lot more white on them than their northern hemisphere counterparts. This includes white bellies, white on the ventral side of the flippers and flukes and sometimes white up high along the flanks.
Humpbacks remain on the surface for from three to six minutes between long dives in which they often remain submerged for up to 30 minutes. Underwater observations confirm that although Humpbacks dive vertically they often remain within a few body lengths of the surface, twisting and rolling in close physical contact with others in the pod.
Humpbacks are also distinguished by their extraordinary acrobatics featuring explosive breeching and spectacular leaps that sometimes propel their entire body from the sea to hang momentarily suspended like an enormous trophy on a wall. Although the purpose of the breeching is not clear it is thought that the crashing sound of their splashdown may be a way of communicating with and perhaps warning other whales.
Humpback tail flukes are up to four metres across with a serrated or scalloped edge. The tails are often raised and slapped on the surface of the sea, again sending a clear warning signal to others around them. The zoological name for the Humpback is Megaptera novaeangliae (big winged New Englander) and refers to their extraordinarily long broad and serrated pectoral fins, which can be one-third of the whale’s body length. The leading edge of the pectoral fins have a knobbly appearance with about 10 bumps that protrude and reflect the placement of the so-called ‘finger bones’. Like tail-lobbing, pectoral slapping may be another way of communicating.
But by far the most effective method of communicating comes from the Humpback’s unmistakeably melodious moan, a vibrating undersea song every bit as moving as any by Verdi. In his book Oceans of Life, Callum Roberts explains that these hauntingly beautiful songs have evolved to carry over enormous distances in the sea.
The much greater density of seawater compared to air carries sounds further and faster. Noise travels about five times more quickly in the sea, reaching 1,500 metres per second in temperate waters. Sound drops off less quickly in water than in air, so noises can be heard at far greater distances. High frequencies attenuate more quickly than low frequencies, so deeper notes go further.
Some of the great whales communicate over distances of hundreds or even thousands of kilometres using a series of low-frequency rumbles. Humpbacks are among the several species of whales that use this aquatic telephone to broadcast calls over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres.
Scott Portelli says the Humpback songs he has heard sound “like something from our music charts”.
“The songs have a beginning, middle and an end,” he says. “They are highly structured and repetitive and catchy enough that all the whales in a population sing the same current tune. The song version changes over time, usually on the breeding grounds. A song’s evolution can be gradual with a phrase changed here or there, or rapid involving a whole new song. But when the changes are made, all males adopt them into their repertoire.”
Scott says that when singing the whales will often be suspended motionless in the water, head tilted down and tail slightly raised.
“If you swim with a singer,” he says, “you can not only hear their melody, but feel it too.”
A final word on whales comes from John Muir, the Father of the modern conservation movement. Muir believed that nature has an intrinsic right to exist and that protecting wild nature is essential for the human spirit. He wrote:
“Think of the hearts of these whales beating warm against the sea, day and night, through dark and light, on and on for centuries; how the red blood must rush and gurgle in and out, bucketfuls, barrelfuls at a beat.”
Every time I see the bloody footage of a great whale being towed tail-first up the stern ramp of a Japanese factory ship, I think of John Muir’s words and wonder how much longer this barbaric slaughter will be allowed to continue.
Whales in Paradise: Humpback Whales in the Kingdom of Tonga by Scott Portelli is available on-line at www.scottportelli.com RRP $80.