This past weekend I had the opportunity of a lifetime: sailing to the Farallon Islands. While it was a quintessential foggy San Francisco day, and the wind was less than impressive, the marine mammals that graced us with their presence truly made this day memorable. Two hours into this 12 hour adventure and only a few miles out of the Golden Gate, I could not believe my eyes. Humpback Whales breaching right in front of me! For two minutes that felt like hours, I was mesmerized, watching the two whales dance in front of me.
Humpback whales, or Megaptera novaeangliae, are omnivorous mammals, primarily feeding on krill, plankton, and small fish. They reach up to 62.5 feet in length, which is about the length of a bus, and weight around 40 tons. Humpbacks are currently considered an endangered species. They are present in every ocean, and travel far and wide as their annual migration is the longest out of any other mammal. Humpbacks spend their summers in cooler and even polar waters for feeding and their winters in tropical ecosystems for mating and taking care of their young.
It is very much possible to spot Humpback Whales in the San Francisco Bay at this time of year as they can be found here on their migration route between July and November. You can identify their spouts as they are shaped like a balloon and reach up to 10 feet high. Some call these giants the “ballerinas of the sea” due to their graceful leaps out of the water, known as breaches. Their tail fin, called a fluke, gives them power as they are swimming and allows them to breach. The reason for their breaching remains a mystery. Some believe that this behavior allows them to clean their skin while others say they simply do it for fun. Not only are they dancers, but they are also singers, as they communicate by letting out beautiful songs that travel through the ocean.
Humpback Whales are baleen whales. This means that they feed through a filtering mechanism. Instead of teeth, they have baleen plates lined with stiff, hair-like material made out of keratin. This is what our hair and fingernails are made of as well. As a baleen whale takes in water through its baleen, it filters out the food from the water, keeping plankton, krill, and small fish, and ridding itself of the water. A Humpback Whale has around 330 pairs of dark-colored baleen plates.
Humpbacks are characterized by the dorsal fin on their backs and pleats which run from their lower jaw all the way to their bellies. Individual humpbacks can be identified by their dorsal fin and tail “print,” as the coloring and patterns found on each humpback is unique to that individual whale. They are black on the dorsal or upper side of their bodies, and a combination of black and white on their bellies.
Learning about these majestic creatures reminds me of why we do the work that we do at The Watershed Project. Preventing marine debris from littering our oceans and cleaning up the watersheds is truly important to our large marine mammals. Plastic now outnumbers plankton in many parts of our oceans, meaning Humpback Whales are prone to be ingesting mass amounts of plastic. Next Saturday when I am participating in International Coastal Cleanup Day, I will be keeping my eyes out for Humpback Whales, and cleaning the shorelines for their sake!