Whale Watching Guide
If you are planning to take a whale watching tour on your Puerto vacation, use our Whale Watching Guide to learn more about the magnificent Humpback whales that migrate to the calm and crystal clear waters of Banderas Bay every year from December through April.
Vallarta Adventures' whale watching tours offer you the opportunity to capture a glimpse of these impressive creatures in their natural habitat. Our professional guides, trained in mammalian behavior and protection, will offer you a greater understanding into the underwater world of the whales.
What are Whales?
Whales are marine mammals which are neither dolphins nor porpoises. Orcas (Killer Whales) and Pilot whales have "whale" in their name, though they are dolphins for the purpose of classification. Like all mammals, whales breathe air into lungs, are warm-blooded, feed their young milk from mammary glands, and have some (although very little) hair.
The body is fusiform, resembling the streamlined form of a fish. The fore limbs, also called flippers, are paddle-shaped. The end of the tail holds the fluke, or tail fins, which provide propulsion by vertical movement. Most species of whale bear a fin on their backs known as a dorsal fin. Beneath the skin lies a layer of fat, so called blubber. It serves as an energy reservoir and also as insulation.
Whales have a four-chambered heart. The neck vertebrae are fused in most whales, which provides stability during swimming at the expense of flexibility. They have a pelvis bone, which is a vestigial structure Whales breathe through their blow holes, located on the top of the head so the animal can remain submerged.
Whales have a unique respiratory system that lets them stay underwater for long periods of time without taking in oxygen. Whales generally live for 40-90 years, depending on their species, and on rare occasions can be found to live over a century.
Humpback Whales of Banderas Bay
The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a Baleen whale. One of the larger rorqual species, adults range in length from 12-16 meters (40-50 ft) and weigh approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb). The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with unusually long pectoral fins and a knobby head. It is an acrobatic animal, often breaching and slapping the water. Males produce a complex whale song, which lasts for 10 to 20 minutes and is repeated for hours at a time. The purpose of the song is not yet clear, although it appears to have a role in mating.
Found in oceans and seas around the world, humpback whales typically migrate up to 25,000 kilometers each year. Humpbacks feed only in summer, in polar waters, and migrate to tropical or sub-tropical waters to breed and give birth in the winter. During the winter, humpbacks fast and live off their fat reserves. The species' diet consists mostly of krill and small fish. Humpbacks have a diverse repertoire of feeding methods, including the bubble net feeding technique.
Like other large whales, the humpback was and is a target for the whaling industry. Due to over-hunting, its population fell by an estimated 90% before a whaling moratorium was introduced in 1966. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, humpbacks are now sought out by whale-watchers.
Humpback whales are rorquals (family Balaenopteridae), a family that includes the blue whale, the fin whale, the Bryde's whale, the Sei whale and the Minke whale. Humpback whales can easily be identified by their stocky bodies with obvious humps and black dorsal coloring. The head and lower jaw are covered with knobs called tubercles, which are actually hair follicles and are characteristic of the species.
The tail flukes, which are lifted high in some dive sequences, have wavy trailing edges. There are four global populations, all being studied. North Pacific, Atlantic, and southern ocean humpbacks have distinct populations which make an annual migration.
The long black and white tail fin, which can be up to a third of body length, and the pectoral fins have unique patterns, which enable individual whales to be recognized. Humpbacks also have 'rete mirable' a heat exchanging system, which works similarly to the same structured system in certain species of sharks and other fish.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Newborn calves are roughly the length of their mother's head. A 50-foot (15 m) mother would have a 20-foot (6.1 m) newborn weighing in at 2 short tons. They are nursed by their mothers for approximately six months, then are sustained through a mixture of nursing and independent feeding for possibly six months more. Humpback milk is 50% fat and pink in color. Some calves have been observed alone after arrival in Alaskan waters. Females reach sexual maturity at the age of five with full adult size being achieved a little later.
According to new research, males reach sexual maturity at approximately 7 years of age. Fully grown the males average 15-16 m (49-52 ft), the females being slightly larger at 16-17 m (52-56 ft), with a weight of 40,000 kg (or 44 tons); the largest recorded specimen was 19 m (62 ft) long and had pectoral fins measuring 6 m (20 ft) each. The largest humpback on record, according to whaling records, was killed in the Caribbean. She was 88 feet (27 m) long, weighing nearly 90 tons.
Females typically breed every two or three years. The gestation period is 11.5 months, yet some individuals can breed in two consecutive years. Humpback whales were thought to live 50-60 years, but new studies using the changes in amino acids behind eye lenses proved another baleen whale, the Bowhead, to be 211 years old. This was an animal taken by the Inuit off Alaska. More studies on ages are currently being done.
The species feeds only in summer and lives off fat reserves during winter. Humpback whales will only feed rarely and opportunistically while in their wintering waters. It is an energetic feeder, taking krill and small schooling fish, such as herring, salmon, capelin and sand lance as well as Mackerel, pollock and haddock in the North Atlantic, Krill and Copepods have been recorded from Australian and Antarctic waters. It hunts fish by direct attack or by stunning them by hitting the water with its pectoral fins or flukes.
The humpback has the most diverse repertoire of feeding methods of all baleen whales. Its most inventive technique is known as bubble net feeding: a group of whales blows bubbles while swimming in circles to create a ring of bubbles. The ring encircles the fish, which are confined in an ever-tighter area as the whales swim in a smaller and smaller circles. The whales then suddenly swim upward through the bubble net, mouths agape, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp. This technique can involve a ring of bubbles up to 30 m (100 ft) in diameter and the cooperation of a dozen animals. Some of the whales take the task of blowing the bubbles through their blow holes, some dive deeper to drive fish toward the surface, and others herd fish into the net by vocalizing. Humpbacks have been observed bubble net feeding alone as well.
Both male and female humpback whales can produce sounds, however only the males produce the long, loud, complex "songs" for which the species is famous. Each song consists of several sounds in a low register that vary in amplitude and frequency, and typically lasts from 10 to 20 minutes. Songs may be repeated continuously for several hours; humpback whales have been observed to sing continuously for more than 24 hours at a time. As cetaceans have no vocal cords, whales generate their song by forcing air through their massive nasal cavities.
Whales within an area sing the same song, for example all of the humpback whales of the North Atlantic sing the same song, and those of the North Pacific sing a different song. Each population's song changes slowly over a period of years - never returning to the same sequence of notes.
Scientists are still unsure of the purpose of whale song. Only male humpbacks sing, so it was initially assumed that the purpose of the songs was to attract females. However, many of the whales observed to approach singing whales have been other males, with the meeting resulting in a conflict. Thus, one interpretation is that the whale songs serve as a threat to other males. Some scientists have hypothesized that the song may serve an echo locative function. During the feeding season, humpback whales make altogether different vocalizations, which they use to herd fish into their bubble nets.
The varying patterns on the humpback's tail flukes are sufficient to identify an individual. Unique visual identification is not possible in most cetacean species (exceptions include Orcas and Right Whales), so the humpback has become one of the most-studied species. A study using data from 1973 to 1998 on whales in the North Atlantic gave researchers detailed information on gestation times, growth rates, and calving periods, as well as allowing more accurate population predictions by simulating the mark-release-recapture technique. A photographic catalogue of all known whales in the North Atlantic was developed over this period and is currently maintained by Wheelock College.
Similar photographic identification projects have subsequently begun in the North Pacific by SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks), and around the world. Another organization (Cascadia Research) headed by well known researcher John Calambokidis, along with Dr. Robin Baird, have joined with others from NOAA, hoping to soon have an online catalog of more than 3500 fluke identification pictures that the public can access, and possibly contribute to.
High energy activities performed by Humpback Whales, may serve for diverse social functions. These following behaviors have been recorded from boats and shoreline observations and must be interpreted in the full context of the season and its location for us to understand their significance and purpose.
A series of exhalations and inhalations at the surface. It simply reflects the act of breathing and the following water condensation as a consequence.
Peduncle Arch or Round Out
It takes place at the surface as the whale begins a diving descent while arching its body in a rolling movement (round out). The whale then may arch high as the caudal peduncle appears, sometimes in an attempt to dive more deeply (peduncle arch).
After the peduncle arch, the whale will usually surface and perform flukes. This may be brought straight up in the air o as a fluke down dive, displaying unique pattern of markings found on each whale.
Whales will roll sideways frequently while slapping their pectoral fins against the water at the surface. They'll also lay on their backs as they wave both fins in the air and slapping them on top of the water at the same time.
The whale will maintain its head above the surface in a straight out of the water movement - just below the eye. Then, it'll often turns 90 - 180 degrees on its longitudinal axis, in order to slip back down the surface.
A strong slap of the flukes against the water surface before lying in a dorsal or ventral up movement.
Performed as an aggressive behavior, throwing up out of the water the rear portion of the body, including the caudal peduncle and the flukes before coming down sideways into the surface or on top of other whale.
The whale will rise its head way up (20 ft) above the water surface, sometimes partially above the mouth level and then pound it back.
The whale will rise above the water, clearing the surface with two-thirds of its body in a propelling movement and then will turn in the air about its longitudinal axis while throwing one pectoral fin out to the side.
Come and See Them
Most people do not have the opportunity to observe Humpback whales in the wild. The unique opportunity to observe these marvelous marine mammals in their natural habitat increases public awareness and appreciation of wildlife exists only in places such as in the Banderas Bay area of Puerto Mexico.
If you have ever dreamed of experiencing the thrill of seeing whales and wild dolphins first hand, you won't want to miss Adventures exhilarating whale watching tours. Whale Watching Adventures are some of the most popular ecotours in Puerto Vallarta - so book your tour TODAY!