We were extremely lucky to recently have some of our work featured on National Geographic. I was contacted by a journalist about a recent piece of work we had published in the scientific
journal, Endangered Species Research. It tells the tale of a Russian male humpback whale that
we had seen here in February 2018 right in front of Monkey Mountain, fighting with other
males for access to a female from Alaska. How do we know where these whales are from and
even their sex? The underside of their tail flukes are unique, and you can identify individuals by
taking good quality photos of the ventral side of their tails. We then upload it to a database
called Happywhale (www.happywhale.com), that has over 27,000 individual whales identified
in the North Pacific. They match our photos to tails in their catalog, and then email us all the
information about the whales.
So back in February 2018, several volunteers and l were out doing research around Monkey Mountain, and we managed to take photos of five of these whales’ tails, when they were in a very aggressive and fast-moving mating group. When we uploaded the photos to Happywhale, not only did we find out that this male whale had been seen in Russia since 2010, and was named Frodo (!), but we also saw that in February the year prior (2017), he had been seen in the Mariana Islands of the Philippines Sea. This meant Frodo had swam across the entire Ocean basin within a year, and ended up in Sayulita. This was the longest recorded distance between two individual sightings of a photo-identified humpback whale, of 11, 261 km, and in fact arguably the longest distance between two unique sightings of any non-human mammal!
Humpback whales are a large baleen whale that have a worldwide distribution and typically migrate between high-latitude feeding areas and low-latitude breeding areas. They have what we call “high site-fidelity”, which means they typical return to the breeding area of their birth, or the feeding area they were taken to by their mum in their year of life. Only about 2% of North Pacific humpback whales have been documented changing breeding areas, and it is most typically between Mexico and Hawai’i. However, what piqued our interest even more, was that this was a Russian whale.
The humpback whale feeding areas of the North Pacific stretch from California up the west coast of North America, to Alaska, across the Gulf, along the Aleutian Islands, to the Russian Far East. Migrations of humpback whales are generally divided by the west, central and east of the Ocean basin. Therefore, most Russian whales migrate down to Japan, the Philippines and the Mariana Islands. Most Alaskan whales down to Hawai’i, and most Washington to California
feeding whales down to Mexico and Central America. However, along with Frodo, we had started to notice that we had been getting very sporadic sightings of Russian whales in Mexico and so we decided to investigate further.
In total, we found 117 Russian humpback whales that had been sighted in the Mexican breeding areas. And over one third of these whales were being sighted in Mexico regularly. In fact, one male has been seen in 10 different seasons in our area, which is known as “mainland Mexico” and runs from Sinaloa down to the Banderas Bay region of Jalisco. We found females
and males were making this trans-Pacific journey, and even saw Russian females with calves along the Sayulita coastline. We documented two whales that had made the return journey and were seen in Mexico then Russia and then Mexico again in consecutive seasons. This is the longest migration for a humpback whale in the Northern Hemisphere, a round trip of a minimum of 16, 400 km.
It has been our aim to try and put Sayulita on the map for whale research. We have now been studying the humpback whales in the Sayulita region since 2012 and we have identified around 3,000 unique individuals. Approximately 95% of our catalog is from images taken on La Orca de
Sayulita whale watching trips, and the others from research trips which are paid for by the whale watching company. The US, Canadian and Mexican Government are all using our data to help manage and protect the humpback whales, and we are very lucky to now have been featured on BBC’s Blue Planet, National Geographic, and have over 19 reports published. None of this would have been possible without the support of the local Sayulita community. We want to give a big thank you and expression of appreciation to you all for helping our research, without your support, recommendations and business none of this would have been possible.
These findings are not only interesting, but very important for the management of the North Pacific humpback whales. Prior to our study it was not known that humpback whales were regularly making this trans-Pacific migration from Russia to Mexico. Why they might be doing
this? Well, we can only speculate that it is a relic of whaling, with the Western North Pacific distinct population segment still classified as endangered, and illegal whaling having continued in the region for far longer than the east of the Ocean basin. Humpback whales looking for
mates probably found those regions resources (mates) unreliable, and started travelling further afield to more distant breeding areas.
Our local biologist and whale expert Nico Ransome was kind enough to write this article for us!