Humpback whales need their space

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 4:15pm

During the spring and summer seasons in Rhode Island, select whale populations begin their migrations along the coasts. One whale species that migrates to New England waters to feed is the humpback whale. The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is known for traveling long distances each year — one of the longest migrations of any mammal on the planet. Its name is derived from the identifiable hump on its back, which can be seen when one breaches to the surface. Its long fins helped inspire its scientific name, Megaptera, meaning “big-winged.”

Recognized by whale watching services as one of the most active whales to watch, they are often found jumping out of the water and slapping the surface with their fins or tails.

Recently, while on the ferry, Chris Warfel, owner of Sun Farm Oysters, spotted humpback whales spouting over by Clayhead. Warfel said he had previously witnessed “four humpbacks going east in a line along the surface by St. Andrew Parish Center” on Spring Street.

But there have been some alarming trends. In September 2017, one humpback whale was found washed up on the shore by the Mohegan Bluffs. Weeks later, a second humpback whale washed up by Ballard’s beach. A baby humpback carcass was found located in Jamestown that year as well.

Humpback whales are listed as threatened and endangered in several parts of the world due to threats, but these threats can be prevented. Threats towards humpback whales include vessel strikes, entanglements, and vessel-based harassment. These whales are vulnerable and curious, and are at higher risk in areas with increased ship and vessel traffic. Entanglements can occur from moorings, traps, pots, or gillnets. When a humpback becomes entangled, the gear can stay attached to the whale for long migrations, impacting and resulting in loss of energy, injuries and possibly death. Vessel-based harassment can come from whale watching vessels themselves, as well as recreational boats. These vessels may cause stress and interruption to their natural behavior patterns.

Humpback whales are mostly black or gray, with white markings on their flukes (tails), long pectoral fins and ventral pleats (creases on the underside). They are most commonly known for their active lifestyles, jumping and slapping the water with their fins and tails. 

It’s important to remember, if you come across a whale or any marine mammal, always give the animal space and respect their natural environments. Witnessing a marine mammal can be exciting and educational, but they need their space.