Tale of the Whales

Humpback whales deserve their own blog.

I’ve been a scuba diver more than 30 years and have yet to encounter a whale underwater. On my honeymoon 35 years ago, Mike and I were treated to an occasional tail flip by the North Pacific Humpback and sperm whales off the coast of Maui. That was thrilling enough; until my visit to Puerto Lopez on the Ecuadorian coast.

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Photo not credited but taken from a Puerto Lopez tourism site. My dream scuba trip one day!

From June until September, as many as 2,600 Southern Humpback whales arrive in the 70-degree Pacific off the coast of Ecuador. They have traveled three to four months over 4,000 miles from the frigid waters of Antarctica in search of warmer waters in which to mate or to birth calves. The humpbacks that feed in Antarctic waters and travel north to breed off Ecuador, Colombia and Panama make the longest confirmed migration of any mammal. The whales travel that far because young calves cannot survive cold waters until they develop sufficient fat. The calves typically nurse 6 to 10 months, but within three or four they are ready to travel back to Antarctica.

Mike and I were on the coast to enjoy a stay at Villa de los Suenos in La Entrada, a secluded bed and breakfast run by expats Marsha and Shell Spivey. Whale-watching is offered as a daily activity option and was my primary purpose for making the trip. In nearby Puerto Lopez, you can grab a tour on any number of small boats for about $25. After motoring 30 to 45 minutes out into the blue ocean, you may encounter one to as many as eight whales swimming in a pod. The tours last about two hours, with boat captains following spouting whales at a respectable distance.

We begin to look for blowholes – which, by the way, are not water, but the whale’s exhalation released into lower-pressure, colder atmosphere, condensing into water vapor. That white splash you see from a distance can also be caused by water resting on top of the blowhole.DSC_0492

Our tour guide takes opportunities between whale spotting to educate us. We learn the humpbacks are baleens, which, like the blue and gray whales, have two spouts on their heads. These Southern Humpbacks from Antarctica are generally more light-colored than their Hawaiian cousins, the North Pacific Humpback. A third variety, called the North Atlantic Humpback, has mainly white flippers in contrast to the other two types, which have darker colored upper flippers. All have bumpy heads, nodes called tubercles, which are used in a sensory capacity, much like a cat’s whiskers.

We spot a pod of gracefully lumbering, curved black backs at the surface. Humpbacks are named for the manner in which their curved backs arch when they leap above the water. These are magnificent creatures! Adults are 40 to 50 feet long and weigh almost 80,000 pounds. Their fins alone extend up to 15 feet.

The males sing to attract the females and slap the water with their fins. I nearly jumped out of my skin when, facing the opposite direction, everyone pointed behind me as a giant whale was just diving back into the water and slapping his tail.

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Photo of a lifetime! Not taken by me, and not credited by local tourism agency.

Being that the reporter’s blood still flows within me, I wanted to learn more. I read about the Humboldt Current, which is largely credited with the humpback whales’ migratory path from Antarctica to the South American coastline. The Humboldt runs near the coast of Ecuador, stirring up the plankton and krill humpbacks and dolphins thrive on. An adult whale can consume up to 3,000 pounds a day!

The Humboldt also is the reason the coastal areas from Chile to Peru produce a fifth of the world’s fish.  Interestingly, scientists believe the changing climate is changing the current and the ecosystems that depend upon it.

DSC_0526The Humboldt Current is already stressed by the El Nino and la Nina events and is producing the most significant minimum oxygen zone in any of the world’s oceans. The oxygen free water under the surface forces the fish to live closer to the surface where they can breathe, but as fish and other organisms die, they fall to the sea bed where they simply are deposited in sediments rather than being part of the food chain. It is thought that the impact of the changing climate is causing the minimum oxygen zone to expand, and for this part of the ocean to become more acidic.

Without getting too technical, there are climate changes and currents that are largely dependent on a delicate balance of cold and warm air and water.  If the Earth warms too much, it’s possible that certain currents could collapse entirely, new research says. That would mean frigid winters for countries along the North Atlantic, expansion of the sea ice in the Greenland, Iceland, and Norwegian seas, and a shift in rainfall across the world.

Meanwhile in Antarctica – which happens to be my next adventure this winter – is melting three times faster than it was just ten years ago, shedding 200 billion tons of ice into the oceans every year. The World Wildlife Fund says warmer ocean temperatures and melting sea ice in the polar regions may jeopardize the ecology of the Arctic and Antarctic feeding grounds of many large whales. The bowhead, narwhal, and beluga, which live in Arctic waters year-round, are in particular danger.

Climate changes, depletion in the ozone layer and the related rise in UV radiation may also lead to a fall in the population of krill, a primary food source for many marine species, including these spectacular whales off the coast of Ecuador.

I’m captivated by these gentle giants slowly rising and falling with the waves. I feel honored to indulge in an afternoon in their presence, knowing that, ultimately, we may be responsible for their destruction.DSC_0564

The guide leans over to tell me individual whales can be identified. Their flukes are distinctive compared with any other whale species; the black and white markings and scalloped edges are as unique as a human fingerprint, allowing experts to name thousands of individuals around the world. The wavy edged flukes are raised during dives, enabling researchers to keep track of individual whales from year to year.

Silently, I entertain myself by naming a few that persist in swimming near our boat.

Who knows? Maybe that pod of seven that so easily enthralled me in Ecuador will see me again in Antarctica when I get there in November. Hmmmmm.