Whale behaviour to look out for when whale watching
Lob-tailing and flipper slapping
Know your whales
Humpback whales are a migratory species found in all the major oceans worldwide. These whales can be spotted In KZN waters during June/July, travelling northward to warmer tropical waters to breed and calve, as well as in October/November, travelling southward returning to their feeding grounds in Antarctica with their newborn calves.
Humpback whales are easy to identify as they have a few key distinguishing features, both as a species (see below) and as individuals (the colouration of the tail fluke is used to identify individuals). The identification of individuals generates a population catalogue. An adult Humpback whale can be up to 15m in length (females are larger than males) and can weigh up to 40 tonnes (that’s roughly equivalent to 20 adult White Rhino). The name of this whale species comes from the humping of the back as the animal arches before it dives.
What to look out for:
- Dorsal fin - a wide based snubby fin on a hump on the back of the whale.
- Tail fluke - each individual has its own unique pigmentation pattern on the underside of the tail. The tail has a serrated edge, also unique to individual whales (much like a human’s finger print).
- Flippers - very long, roughly one third of its body length. Dark upper side and varying white under sides, with 4-6 bumps on the leading edge.
- Blow - single bushy blow 3-8m tall.
- Head - black lumps occur on the top of the head and lower jaw. These are high follicles called tubercles. The throat is often white in colour (but not always) with distinct grooves.
- Belly - may be varying degrees of white.
Humpback whales are baleen whales, which means they have long fronds of baleen, or fibrous material, hanging from their upper jaws, and they do not have teeth. Baleen is used to sieve their prey from the water. The Humpback whale diet consists mainly of krill (in the Southern Hemisphere) and small pelagic fish (in the Northern Hemisphere). They generally do not seem to feed when they are migrating between feeding and breeding grounds.
Humpback whales have a unique co-operative feeding technique in certain areas called bubble netting. The whales blow bubbles while circling below the fish or krill prey, as the bubbles rise to the surface, they create a cylinder of bubbles that acts as a net encircling and confusing the prey. The whales then swim up with their mouths wide open and engulf the prey caught within the bubble net.
Humpback whales can be seen travelling past the East Coast in groups of between 1 and 4 animals. They are quite inquisitive and sometimes approach boats. Much bigger groups can be observed at their breeding grounds and feeding grounds.
One might also spot a Humpback whale lying on its side or back with either one or both of its flippers or its tail in the air. Whales’ bodies are insulated by blubber (fat) which can cause them to overheat in warmer waters. The flippers and tail have a thinner layer of insulating blubber and exposure of these to air enables the whales to cool down.
The Humpback whale can remain submerged for up to 45 minutes (in extreme cases); however the average dive is usually 3 to 9 minutes. Their average swimming speed is 5-7 km/h.
Humpback whales migrate close to the coastline, which made them easy whaling targets. When modern whaling methods were introduced in the early 1900’s (such as cannon fired harpoons and stream driven catcher boats) in the early 1900’s their numbers began to decline dramatically. Seven Southern Hemisphere Humpback whale populations migrate between seven winter breeding grounds in tropical or subtropical coastal waters of continents or island archipelagos in the Southern Hemisphere, and polar summer feeding grounds. Some of these populations use continental coastal waters as migratory corridors, with one such corridor conveying the Breeding Stock C population whales along the coast of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, between the breeding grounds in Mozambican waters, and the high latitude waters to the south of Africa.
Southern Hemisphere Humpback whales were subject to severe modern whaling in both the Antarctic feeding and tropical breeding grounds, with some 210, 000 Humpback whales taken during this whaling era. Humpback whaling in South Africa started in 1908 in Durban and continued until legal protection in October 1963, although the majority of local catches were made prior to 1918.
Certain Southern Hemisphere populations of Humpback whales appear to be undergoing considerable recovery from whaling in some wintering grounds including those that migrate through the south-western Indian Ocean, where an annual increase rate of some 10% per annum over the period 1988 to 2002 has been estimated. Their present conservation status according to the IUCN’s Red List is “Least Concern”. While it seems that stocks are recovering, entanglement in fishing gear and shark nets, collisions with ships, and noise pollution, continue to impact the whale populations.
Help us build South Africa’s East Coast Humpback whale photo identification catalogue, by sending your photos.
Dwarf Minke Whale
Dwarf Minke Whale
Dwarf Minke whales can be found in the Southern Hemisphere in the tropical to temperate waters, and can be spotted on the East Coast of South Africa all year around. They also occur all the way to the Antarctic.
Dwarf Minke whales are smaller than the other baleen whales we see on our coast, reaching a maximum of 10m in length when fully grown (females are bigger than males) and weighing only about 6 tonnes. They have a V-shaped pointed head with one prominent ridge running down the centre from the blowhole to the end of the snout. They have a distinguishing feature from other Minke whales, namely a white chevron on their short flippers that extends to their bodies.
What to look out for:
- Head - one parallel longitudinal ridge running down the centre of its pointy head and white throat grooves are prominent.
- Flipper - short with a distinct dark trailing edge with a white marking that extends onto the body. Although seldom seen above water it is a distinguishing feature for this species so look out for it.
- Blow - small, however can spout up to 3m, also listen for it as it can be heard on a calm day.
- Dorsal fin - semi-circular and erect, situated about two thirds down the back.
- Tail fluke - these are seldom seen above the surface and hardly ever appear when the whale dives. If you do get a glimpse of the tail fluke it is dark above and pale grey to white in colour underneath with an indistinctive central notch and a slightly concave trailing edge.
- Breaching - Minke whales can be observed breaching, although not as frequently as some of the other larger whales. They tend to leave the water dorsal side up and re-enter the water without twisting or turning, landing on their stomachs with a great big splash, almost like a giant belly flop. They may choose to arch their backs and re-enter head first much like a dolphin dives. Breaches are often repeated 2-3 times with most of the body leaving the water on the first breach enough to see the dorsal fin.
Dwarf Minke whales feed on krill and school fish. They are lunge feeders, taking a big gulp of water and filtering out their prey through their baleen.
They can be inquisitive; they often approach boats and have been known to swim alongside them for some distance. Occasionally they can be spotted breaching and spyhopping. They are relatively fast swimming, and dive on average for 3-8 mintutes. Group sizes vary between 1 and 15 and they can sometimes be spotted feeding at the surface beneath a flock of feeding seabirds.
Their conservation status is listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List; however, Dwarf Minke whales face a variety of threats from human activities such as becoming caught in fishing gear, entangled in litter and, consuming litter.
Southern Right Whale
Southern Right Whale
Southern Right whales are a migratory species. Their summer feeding grounds are in the Sub-Antarctic waters. They move North to warmer waters in the winter to breed. They can be observed in Southern African waters mainly in the Cape region; however, some have been known to migrate as far North as KwaZulu-Natal and one should look out for them in June/July and October/November.
Southern Right whales have a large round body, which is usually black in colour although some may appear mottled. They have a characteristically massive head with an arched upper jaw and big curving lower jaw. A key identifying feature is the lack of a dorsal fin. Another distinguishing feature for Southern Right whales is the presence of callosities on the animal’s head. These callosities, which are patches of thickened skin, appear yellow/white in colour from whale lice which colonise the callosities. The size and pattern of these callosities is unique to individuals and is used to identify them. An adult whale can reach up to 15m in length (females are larger than males) and can weigh 40-50 tonnes.
What to look out for:
- Blow - wide V-shaped blow reaching up to 4m (this can appear as one jet from the side or in the wind).
- Dorsal fin - there is no dorsal fin.
- Tail fluke - triangular with distinctive central notch and smooth trailing edges, black in colour both sides.
- Flippers - large, broad and paddle-shaped, black on both sides, often seen above the surface.
- Head - covered in callosities.
- Breaching - often breach, normally repeatedly up to 10 times. They lift their whole bodies out of the water and generate an impressive splash on re-entry, a great spotting sign.
Southern Right whales feed mainly on copepods (small crustacean plankton). They are skim feeders and sieve their prey through their long baleen. They feed mainly at their feeding grounds in the Sub-Antarctic.
Slow, clumsy-looking swimmers moving at a modest rate of about 0.5 to 4km/hr (top speed of 17km per/hr). Their maximum diving depth is an impressive 300m and they can dive for up to 30 minutes; they often raise their tail flukes in preparation for longer dives. They are surprisingly aerobatic and can be witnessed breaching frequently. They can also often be seen sailing with their tail fluke raised above the water. Group sizes vary from 1-10.
Southern Right whales got their name from being the “right” whale to catch during the open boat whaling era. They come close to shore, can be slow and are easy to approach, they float when dead and provide large quantities of oil and whalebone for which they were hunted. This species was severely depleted during commercial whaling and came close to extinction. They have been protected since 1935 and have shown remarkable signs of recovery with an annual population increase of approximately seven percent, a doubling of population every ten years. They are now listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN’s Red List.
Killer whales occur in all oceans of the world - from coastal to offshore waters in tropical and polar seas. In Southern Africa they can be spotted all along the coastline.
Killer whales are the largest member of the dolphin family. It is fairly easier to identify them with their robust body, cone-shaped head, broad and well-rounded flippers, and the large tall dorsal fins of the males; As well as with their contrasting black and white coloration: they have an oval white patch behind each eye, a grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin and white lower jaw and belly, the upper parts and sides are black in colour. An adult whale can reach between 7-9m in length (males are larger than females) and weigh approximately 8 tonnes.
What to look out for:
- Head - rounded head ending with a short beak containing teeth, white patch just above and behind the eye.
- Dorsal fin - is tall and erect in adult males and this can reach up to 2m in height.
- Tail - has a distinct notch in the middle with black upperside and white underside.
- Flippers - large oval shape, black on both sides.
- Breaching - adults and juveniles frequently breach, often clearing the water and landing with a great splash on their back, sides or stomach.
- Spyhopping - when a killer whale spyhops, most of the flippers may be above the surface.
Killer whales are the top predators in the ocean food chain. As a species their diet is varied, eating anything from fish, squid, sea birds, seals, turtles, sea otters and other dolphins. However, the diet of individuals appears somewhat specialised.
Pod sizes vary between 2-10 animals. Killer whales like all other dolphins use whistles for communication and echo-location clicks for navigation and location of prey. They can reach speeds of up to 30km/hr and dive for periods of up to seven minutes. They can be observed breaching, spyhopping, lob-tailing and flipper slapping.
Killer whales are listed as “Data Deficient” (Data inadequate to determine a threat category).