Breaching humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Breaching humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Bit by bit we learn some new and interesting things about whales, and usually they manage to surprise us with every new finding. One of those recent and surprising findings involved the singing enthusiasm of male humpback whales during their mating season in Icelandic waters.

The enchanting and yet out-of-this-world songs of the male humpback whales are broadcasted by males in heat during their mating season which takes place each winter. The humpback whales, both males and females, take on a long journey every year from their high latitude feeding grounds and down to their tropical breeding grounds. That is where pregnant females give birth and males fight over receptive females. 

The songs play an important role in the whole mating scene, though not particularly to impress females but rather to synchronize and orientate males on the breeding ground. Remarkably, the males sing day and night for months at a time while the mating season lasts and once it is over, they turn quite silent, though not entirely, for the rest of the year where time is more or less spent on feeding.

Few years ago, I had been recording sounds from Skjálfandi Bay as I was working on my whale research at the University of Iceland's Research Center in Húsavík. Recordings were collected from the bay during approximately 3 years period in total. The most surprising findings were recordings of chorusing humpback whales singing day and night every winter from approximately December to March off the NE-coast.

These findings showed us that humpback whales (at least some) feeding in Icelandic waters are in little hurry once winter arrives. Instead of leaving the nutritive waters of Iceland in the fall some whales linger on a little bit longer feeding and apparently singing actively until early spring. These new findings have shown us that the coastal waters off N-Iceland are an important habitat for humpback whales throughout the year, both for feeding and possibly for opportunistic mating attempts while still having access to an abundance of food. Once they start migrating south, they will have little or nothing to eat, thus starving until arriving back in Iceland. 

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir, Marine Biologist

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