Humpback Whales of the Arctic
One of the major surprises for me on my Arctic trip was when we encountered four hunting groups of humpback whales. Since this trip was all about Polar Bears, it was great to come across other marine mammals of the region. We had seen a lone Blue Whale earlier in the trip, but getting photos of the planet’s largest animal proved difficult. The humpbacks were far more photogenic and obliging with each group numbering around 3-4 whales. Watching their hunting methods and behaviour was fascinating as they used a ‘bubble netting technique’ to feed.
Above you can see a large circle of bubbles as the whales swim around below the surface, exhaling bubbles to corral the fleeing prey within the net. Notice how few birds there are in the beginning, and this changes quite quickly as can be seen in the picture below. Hundreds of Kittiwake and smaller gulls swarm to where they know the whales will surface. This helped give us photographers no end.
It’s a marvellous moment with the first whale surfaces through the middle of the bubble net. In most cases, it was a single whale that came up from the depths, but occasionally two or three surfaced together, their throat grooves distended as their mouths filled with water and food. They expel all the water through their baleen plates while their tongue is pressed against the roof of the mouth, leaving the delicious krill or fish behind.
Once all the water was expelled from their mouths, they dived once again and started the process all over, allowing others to feed. It’s during these dives that their wonderful flukes (tail) leave the water to allow for great photos to be taken.
Breaching is common amongst all of the species of baleen whales, and I had only seen the Southern Right whale (Hermanus, South Africa) breaching before this trip. During this encounter, the youngest and smallest of the whales did breach a few times and allowed for a few quick photos to be snapped to end off a perfect sighting. Another bucket list species had been crossed off and photographed.
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