March 14 ~ March 21, 2015
Humpback behaviors escape easy understanding. We can attempt to find patterns, to define categories, but for many, we may never truly grasp intent. Likely each behavior can have multiple meanings depending on when and how it’s performed, and the emotions and thoughts of the animal performing it. A fin slap might be meant to be alluring in one instance, and in another a threat. It may serve to call baby closer, or to warn competitors away. Humpbacks will also lend their own personal spin to each behavior, making each encounter with them as interesting and unique as the first. No encounter is entirely predictable, and seemingly commonplace behaviors often morph into the extraordinary.
This week on the Silver Bank we are certainly witness to some extraordinary behaviors. In one instance, we join a female whale as she hovers head down in the water column, seemingly oblivious to the pair of males circling her. Over and over they cross beneath us and over and around the female, posturing towards one another and presumably hoping to impress her. The female responds by rising towards the surface, breaking the surface tail first and hovering with her fluke upright for a moment before departing. The males make a final pass beneath her and us, releasing dense streams of bubbles as they go. In a similar instance, we slip into the water with a female, escort, and challenger trio. The female is settled at the surface, content to float serenely in the sunshine (presumably whales, like us, sometimes just enjoy the feel of sun on their skin). Occasionally she rolls to expose her belly, pecs extended and back arched, then rights herself and turns towards us. We are all nose to nose at these times, she quietly peering at the still humans bobbing just in front of her. Not so the pair of males vying for her attentions: they circle the group restlessly. Eventually she is swept up in the action, and the trio take off together, the males relentlessly battling for proximity to the female. First one, then the other appear victorious, but in the end she sticks with her original escort. The challenger subsides, strips of skin scraped from his blowholes and spine.
Another day we encounter a lone (likely juvenile) female at the surface. We slip into the water with her and she turns briefly towards us. There are moments of total stillness where we consider each other, and then she dives abruptly straight down underneath us. This behavior is repeated over and over, each time with her surfacing just as quickly a hundred feet away, and each time accompanied by a repetitive clicking vocalization. She certainly seems curious, even flirtatious, never straying far from us. Later, another lone female makes us her dancing partners for well over an hour, swirling and rolling just beneath us, and spy hopping just in front of us. What does it mean that she seems attracted to first one tender, then the other? She is younger, smaller, and perhaps practicing courtship behavior with the shadowy form of the tender, rather than another whale. In any case, it’s a remarkable encounter. With each close pass below us, she eyes us carefully, gracefully folding her pectoral fins towards her body then opening them again once beyond us.
The fascinating behaviors don’t stop there: we are also granted an extended session with a mother, calf and escort trio tail lobbing in unison, and all in a row. Later on, another mother, calf and escort trio are joined by a challenger intent on making an impression of his own. He breaches over and over, more than 30 times altogether, just in front of the tender. It’s one of the most ambitious breaching displays we’ve seen on the Silver Bank, and an incredible opportunity for the photographers to capture this classic behavior. And finally, our last day begins with an extended rowdy group battle, five whales in pursuit of a female. One of the males is particularly notable: in addition to being absolutely enormous, he is also missing his dorsal fin entirely (only a knot of scar tissue remains). Obviously an experienced fighter, he repeatedly fills his broad mouth with water, the better to increase momentum as he slams into his competitors.
In addition to the above, mother and calf encounters are also frequent this week, some lasting hours and involving very curious babies. The calves are getting bigger and braver as the season progresses (and the mothers more used to our presence), leading to relaxed and very intimate interactions with the little ones. We also have an encore performance of this year’s iconic humpback song: another singer settled head down grants us several rounds in the water with him.
All in all, an incredible week on the Silver Bank, complemented by sunny skies, calm winds, and clear starry nights. All aboard are looking forward to what the next one brings!