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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What a wonderful account of such an incredible sighting. Their hunting method is fascinating – great to see shots of each phase of the hunt in action!
These photograph are absolutely stunning Wayne! Fabulous work.
[…] Whales have always held a fascination for me. It is simply the sheer size of them. My first wild sightings of whale was quite late in life, as I saw my first breaching Southern Right whale in Gaansbaai, South Africa. I was stood on the high cliffs and simply vowed to get closer images some day. Many years later, I found myself standing on a small ship’s deck (the MS Origo) north of Svalbard, Norway. My heartbeat was as fast as the motor drive of the camera as we watched the hunting humpback whales. […]