The face of a humpback whale

On their annual migrations between Antarctica and the east coast of Australia, humpback whales stop in Queensland’s Hervey Bay where they curiously interact with boats. Here, researchers take a closer look at their skin which is characterised by an amazing diversity of barnacles, tubercles, and... blonde hair.

Words and photographs by Annika Dahlberg

Every year, humpback whales go on long migrations between the cold, nutrient-rich feeding grounds of Antarctica and the warmer waters off the east coast of Australia where they give birth, breed, and socialise. Over the last two whale seasons, I have had the privilege to work in Hervey Bay, Queensland, where the humpback whales come into the shallow and sandy waters of Platypus Bay. Here, we observe the whales and spend full days looking at curious juveniles ‘mugging’, a term that describes inquisitive whales coming close to boats. While a mugging is happening, a whale may also lift its head out of the water in a so-called ‘spy hop’. This is a way for the whale to get a closer look at its surroundings, often spinning around in a pirouette as its eyes are located on the sides of its face.

That feeling you get when a whale lifts its face out of the water, right next to the boat, locking eyes with you as it spins around, is exhilarating. Once you start to see the whales up close, you begin to take note of certain things. The first time I got a close look at the face of a humpback whale and that first wave of excitement subsided, I was amazed to see what was actually there.

Over the last seven years, I have had the incredible opportunity to view and photograph whales on a daily basis through my work. The last two years I have had the pleasure of working alongside marine mammal veteran of over 35 years, Peter Lynch, onboard a whale watching boat in Hervey Bay. Humpback whales are the main species of whale encountered here and visitors keep getting blown away by their extraordinary behaviour in the bay. With camera in hand, I have managed to capture some of these incredibly close encounters. On day three of my job, I had my first close interaction with a humpback whale in the bay. A pod of juvenile whales approached the vessel and one individual instantly carried out a spy hop, seemingly investigating us. As I sat down at the end of the day to go through my photos, I started to look closer at the face of the humpback.

When you take a closer look, a humpback whale’s skin is covered with tubercles, big bumps found on their face, as well as barnacles, small crustaceans that make their homes on marine wildlife. In addition, you can usually spot various scars. On closer inspection, however, there is a lot more going on. As humans and whales are both mammals, we have many things in common. We share several characteristics; we require oxygen, are warm blooded, give birth to live young, give milk to our young, and we have hair. “When whales approach the boat, and lift their heads out of the water, you get the opportunity to show guests their hairs. Most people do not think of whales as having hair,” explains Peter Lynch. Whales once shared the land with other terrestrial animals, but they ventured back into the ocean about 50 million years ago and adapted to a life at sea, I learn from Lynch. After returning to the sea, they lost their thick fur to become more streamlined in the water. This is also why the nostrils of whales moved to the top of the heads making it easier for them to surface for a breath.

For most whale species, the hairs they are born with usually fall off as they grow older. This is not the case for humpback whales, the hairiest of all whale species. Although they do not have a lot of hair in comparison to other mammals, they usually sport a few strands of hair at the front of their faces or their rostrum. They have a strand of hair in each tubercle and a few more spread out across their rostrum – all of them a translucent- blonde colour. We still do not know their function, but scientists have some theories about what they are used for. Dr Barry McGovern, a whale researcher in Hervey Bay, says: “Tubercles on the head contain a hair follicle and lots of nerve cells. We don’t fully understand what they are for, but the general thought is that they are a type of sensory organ. They may detect vibrations in the water, temperature changes, or might be used to assess the density of prey in the surrounding water helping the whale decide to open its mouth or not, a very energetically costly movement.”

In addition to hair, a humpback’s skin is colonised by miniscule animals that make themselves at home on their rostrum. For example, most whales have a small healthy population of sea lice on them which tend to live along the very front of the rostrum where there can be dense clusters of them. A whale can tolerate some lice on their body but if the population is too great, it can get extremely heavy and make the whale less streamlined in the water and as a result, slow the whale down. If a whale gets sick, injured or is a slow-moving individual, the population of the sea lice can grow exponentially, and the whale could end up covered in lice.

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Issue 35
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This feature appears in ISSUE 35: BUILDING HOPE of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 35
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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