Notes and observations from a photographer and cultural interpreter living on Canada's east coast.
Thursday, February 09, 2012
The Whales of Summer
Imagine being in the place where the world's largest gathering of humpback whales takes place every summer. The waters off Newfoundland and Labrador are rich in phytoplankton, providing nutrients for zooplankton and in turn huge numbers of caplin, a small member of the smelt family. It's the presence of these caplin that brings the whales from their winter breeding ground off the Dominican Republic to this prime summer feeding ground. The humpback's scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, translates to "big-winged New Englander" --
a reference to the massive pectoral flippers that are roughly one-third as long as the whale's body. These fins or flippers are used for steering rather than propulsion; in the North Atlantic both the underside and upper surface of the pectoral flippers are white, making them easy to spot through the water. Humpbacks are baleen whales, filtering their food from the water with massive parallel baleen plates that hang suspended from the palate; the inner surface of this baleen shreds into coarse bristles that make the filter more efficient. The whale takes in a mouthful of water and food
such as caplin, then expels the water through these baleen plates leaving only the food behind. This food must be small, since the whale's throat opening is smaller in diameter than a grapefruit. Humpbacks and other baleen whales have a very informal social structure, unlike many toothed whales like orcas and dolphins; they often travel in company with other whales, but not in highly organized pods or family groups. In areas with high concentrations of food, though, they can often be observed feeding cooperatively, working together to herd the schools of caplin into tighter groups
before lunging up through them with mouths agape to feast at this mobile buffet. Organized whale-watching tours by boat can be found in many parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, but excellent land-based whale watching is possible from spots like Signal Hill in St. John's, the cliffs at Cape St. Mary's, Cape Pine, or Twillingate, the beach at St. Vincent's on St. Mary's Bay, and viewing areas like Fishing Point in St. Anthony, to name just a few. The best time for whale watching in Newfoundland and Labrador stretches from late June until early August, although it's possible to see whales from spring through fall. Individual whales can be identified by the markings on the underside of their tails; more about this identification process can be found at Atlantic Whales.