Friday, 6 January 2012

Bermuda whale sighting may change science

It’s only the beginning of the year and already the first humpback whales of the season have been sighted off the South Shore, a fact that may help prove that Bermuda is being used as a whale birthing centre, contrary to previous scientific thought. Andrew Stevenson, author of ‘Whale Song’ and producer of the film ‘Where the Whales Sing’, said there have been four whale sightings in the last two weeks, included one possible calf. “This is fantastic news,” said Mr Stevenson. “If it was a calf, it means it was born ‘here’ in the middle of the ocean, and probably in the shallow waters of Bermuda. Looking in the archives, it seems Bermuda was a breeding and calving ground centuries ago, but this hasn’t been the case for a while. “It’s fantastic news because it means that Bermuda may once again be a breeding and calving ground and this is probably due to the healthy humpback population. It also means that Bermuda is the only place in the world where it is a mid-ocean migratory route, birthing ground and feeding ground for the humpbacks.” He said that someone spotted a very young calf two years ago in mid-January. Seeing calves at this time of year means they have not yet had time to migrate up from the Caribbean as it is too early in the season. The usual migration from the southern winter breeding grounds to the northern summer feeding grounds takes place in Bermuda late March through April. “I believe the whales we see here in the winter are young females who are too young to breed,” said Mr Stephenson. “There could also be ‘grandmothers’, older non-breeders who are caring for juveniles. Rather than go down to the Caribbean breeding grounds for the winter where they will be harassed by overenthusiastic testosterone-laden males and where there is no food, they can hang around these mid-ocean seamounts for the winter in relative peace and at the same time opportunistically pick up food on the upwellings on the seamounts like Challenger and Argus Banks, and even on the edges of the Bermuda islands.” He said this is the sixth season that winter whales have been spotted during the last week of December and first week of January. Mr Stevenson has been researching humpback whales in Bermuda for several years. In 2010 he released a film ‘Where the Whales Sing’ about his research, and last year, he released a companion to the film, the book ‘Whale Song’. There has been a great deal of interest in his project internationally - his website alone has received almost 500,000 hits. “I’m about to embark on the next humpback whale research season with two trips planned to the Silver Bank in January and February to work with experts and researchers in the humpbacks’ breeding and calving grounds and then I expect to spend some 20 or more days on the water here in Bermuda,” said Mr Stevenson. “My goal is to once again obtain 150 individual fluke identifications in a season.” Fluke patterns differ between whales the way fingerprints differ among humans, and can be used to identify individual whales. Mr Stevenson expects the fluke identifications from 2012 to quadruple the total inventory of whale fluke identifications taken in the 40 years before he started his research. “It takes hundreds of hours to catalogue these individual whale flukes and match them against our own Bermuda catalogue of 450 individual whales, and then against the 7,000 plus fluke identifications in the Allied Whale North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue,” said Mr Stevenson. “I also expect that we will have re-sightings within the same season. So far the longest period we have identified the same whale within a season is nine days. “I will, when the opportunity arises, attempt to obtain underwater high definition footage of the pelagic social behaviour of the humpbacks to add to the existing insights we have obtained. All of this will entail some months of dedicated field work which is then followed by even more hours poring over the images and data on computers.” This year he hopes to once again work with American marine scientists to prepare presentations on this data to the Society of Marine Mammology. He continues to speak at schools, clubs and camps to share his passion for the marine environment with students. He has selected an international students to mentor and give first-hand experience with humpback whales. Mr Stevenson’s work is available on his website www.whalesbermuda.com. For more information contact him at 296-7788 or see his website at www.whalesbermuda.com . See some of his videos at youtube.com including http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9YeSA_H4PA&list=UUSZn5MNgT_LIavP9jhUiJQg&index=1&feature=plcp. http://www.royalgazette.com/article/20120106/ISLAND/701069942

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