How Whale Watching Has Made Me Love Science

JUNEAU, ALASKA — Humpback whales are one of the most intelligent species on the planet. Yet you might hear this and, like many other people, wonder: how do we know this? How do we know that humpbacks are so intelligent?

The answer is simple: science.

When many of us hear the phrases “scientists say”, or “according to a recent scientific study”, we are prone to rolling our eyes at the image this conjures up: old, bearded white men in lab coats, mixing potions and charting graphs in a classroom. Yet for the most part, we trust what these scientists tell us about the world we live in.

We just don’t have a clue how they get their information — but it’s not as complicated as you might think.

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How Can We Identify Individual Humpback Whales?

There are about 30,000 humpbacks in the ocean, and believe it or not we can tell most whales apart. Each individual tail, (or fluke, as it’s known), is unique — it’s kind of like our fingerprint. No two are alike. Coloration, scarring, and disfigurement from barnacles have all left distinct patterns, many of which can be identified by sight — with a good photograph, or a better eye.

Humpback whales are mammals, and they take in their oxygen through the air. They have lungs, just like humans. This means they need to come to the surface of the water to breathe, and when they do, they exhale at speeds topping 200 mph. For the most part, humpbacks in Alaska will breathe anywhere from 3–7 times before diving down deep to feed in the waters below the surface.

 Humpback whale spouts, Juneau, AK. photo credit: Matt Koller

Humpback whale spouts, Juneau, AK. photo credit: Matt Koller

There’s a saying in the whale watching world — “tails up, whales down”, because when the whale prepares for its terminal dive, it shows tail in majestic form. Position yourself behind the whale and, with a good enough lens, you can get a clear shot of the fluke: odds are, a clear shot means a positive identification. We now know something distinct about the whale we saw, because its fluke is unique.

Observing Humpback Behavior Over Time Gives Us Hard Data

Let’s say you’re out on the water, in a boat, following a whale around for an afternoon. You record that you saw a whale at 12:01pm and observed it breathing for three minutes, before it dove at 12:04pm. You know this whale — let’s call her Flame — because there is a distinct pattern on the right side of her fluke, visible when she dives. At 12:14pm, you sight a whale that you believe to be Flame resurface, and you watch her breathe for three minutes. She then dives at 12:17pm, and you can confirm that it’s Flame, because of the distinctive pattern on the right side of her fluke.

Now, imagine you do this for an entire afternoon. You’d begin to have a pretty good idea of Flame’s behavior pattern, wouldn’t you? You’d be able to say, with a certain degree of confidence, that Flame usually dives for ten minutes, and remains at the surface for three.

These are reasonable conclusions to draw about a single day. But what if you followed Flame around for an entire summer? Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, with confidence, that Flame usually dives for ten minutes — because you’ve recorded her doing so for a longer period of time?

What if you — or you, and a few friends — observed not just Flame over the summer, but Flame, and ten other whales? All of the sudden, you’d find yourself with a lot more information about which you’d be able to draw conclusions. The broader your data set (the more that Flame’s behavior is observed) means that the conclusions you draw from this data are all the more concrete.

 Flame’s distinctive fluke, Juneau, AK. photo credit: Matt Koller

Flame’s distinctive fluke, Juneau, AK. photo credit: Matt Koller

Humpback Research Can Raise More Questions Than It Answers

Juneau Flukes is a project that aims to chart the behavior of humpback whales by gathering as much data as possible about them. The body of knowledge — which flukes were seen, and when, is compiled on a website, which has given us a wealth of information about the humpbacks that migrate to Juneau every summer to feed.

Now, you might ask: how do we know that they migrate to Juneau?

The answer is simple: because the very same whales have been observed during the winter months off the island of Maui. We know so because we have pictures of their flukes, which tell us for certain that these are the same animals.

This sort of keen, detailed observation is how we know a lot of other things about humpback whales: that they usually take a month or so to migrate to Maui, and that they give birth in its warm waters.

We know that humpbacks mate in Hawaii, and that the males will not follow the females once copulation is complete. We know that for the most part, they are solitary animals who only gather in groups for distinct purposes: courtship, birthing and rearing, and the occasional bubble-net feeding.

 Humpback whales bubble-net feeding, Juneau, AK. photo credit: Matt Koller

Humpback whales bubble-net feeding, Juneau, AK. photo credit: Matt Koller

We know that they can live to be fifty years old, but that a number of their behaviors are inexplicable: why, for example, do they jump high out of the water, rocketing their 80,000 pounds above the surface in one of the single most impressive displays of strength in the animal kingdom?

What causes them to slap their tail on the water, in some cases violently, and for extended periods of time? Is it to communicate with each other, ward off predators, or scare prey?

Why on earth do they sing long, complicated songs that can be heard for miles away, and how do they comprehend, remember, and repeat such songs?

Science is nothing more than collecting a large amount of data over a period of time, and drawing reasonable conclusions from that data. It’s how we know that humpback whales usually dive for 5–1o minutes at time. But oftentimes, the more we study an animal, the more questions we have: just what, exactly, is it doing under water? Oftentimes our ability to draw reasonable conclusions about the world around us is outstripped by our curiosity for answers.

The Song of the Whale Can Only Be Sung by an Intelligent Mammal

Only male humpbacks sing — long, complicated, tonal songs whose complexity has only been matched by human musicians. Other whales in the same region have been observed singing the exact same song — at a completely different time. A song observed one year is repeated the next year, albeit with small progressions and changes. All whales in the same region alter their songs in the same way: they clearly recognize the changes, and incorporate it themselves.

Most displays of pageantry in the animal kingdom are mating behaviors, designed to attract members of the opposite sex by showing off characteristics that prove a mate’s strength: the more capable the father, the stronger the children. As such, it was theorized that the humpback whale song was just this — a mating behavior, designed to attract females.

Yet when researchers put speakers into the water and played the humpback songs in the hopes of attracting females, recording the results over time — who do you think showed up?

Not females, but other males — completely disproving the researcher’s hypothesis.

While the question of the humpback whale song remains unanswered, experiments like these add to the body of knowledge about humpbacks. The fact that only males respond to the song is now a known fact, and we can discount the theory that the song is used to attract females.

Regardless of whether or not we know why a whale sings its song, we can conclude one thing: this is an intelligent animal, capable of some degree of higher learning.

Our culture reveres whales: people of all backgrounds come from far and wide just to watch them. Having spent my summer working on a whale-watching boat in Alaska, my time with them has only served to increase my fascination with these majestic mammals.

Not only have I learned more than I ever imagined about humpback whales, but I’ve gained a new appreciation for science. Working as a naturalist, I’m outside every day, observing the environment around me. It’s easy to see one-off changes in the environment, but that doesn’t mean I have any right to draw conclusions about what’s actually happening in the world around me.

That is the job of the scientist: to observe, to record, to draw conclusions, and to report on what they’ve found. So next time you read a news article citing “a recent scientific study”, you know that it’s someone trained in a particular field who is observing the world around them, and taking notes over a long period of time. They’re gathering data, from which they can draw reasonable conclusions.

Science is not old men in lab coats pouring steaming concoctions from one beaker to another, rather, it is the codification of human knowledge by observation and experimentation.

We’d all be better off if we simply started paying attention to what’s going on in the world around us, and more importantly, drawing reasonable conclusions from what we see.