Whales of Socorro

September 2005

As an ongoing part of our quest to see "big animals" in the Socorro Islands, we look forward to each New Year!

For January begins "Whaling Season" in the Socorro Islands, and without fail, a population of Humpback Whales return each year to the islands from January to March. More than 175 individuals have been identified and photographed to date. The whales are part of a larger population of Humpbacks which call the Northern Pacific their home.

The story used to be told that all the whales "split up" and went to Hawaii, Socorro, and some areas off the coast of Japan. More recent research indicates that the whales in the North Pacific are probably already "grouped" according to areas where they feed, and these resident populations migrate to the areas mentioned. The whales that winter in the Revillagigedos probably range from Northern California to the coast of Alaska during the summer time. Still, it's a trip with a minimum of 2,000 mile, no frequent flyer miles, and by comparison makes flying "coach" attractive (the whales have to swim every mile!).

In any case, for several months each year, in addition to our resident Giant Mantas, Sharks, and other big animals, we also enjoy the company of 40 ft Humpback Whales. What's it like? 

We see them frequently on the surface, breaching, "spy-hopping" (coming out of the water simply to look at the boat), slapping their giant tales, and in general acting like teenagers.

Their plaintive whale song is also a companion on most of the dives. According to scientists who study the Humpbacks, this song "changes" each year, yet exactly how the whales learn the new song, pass it along to others, etc, is not clearly known. The whale song you hear in Socorro is also identical to the Hawaiian and Japanese song. While there is some travel between groups in the North Pacific, it's not yet documented just how the song is transferred.

Underwater, we also encounter the whales, but not as frequently as we see them on the surface. The males are all trying to impress the females as suitable partners, and will pose vertically in the water in front of the females. They'll also, on occasion, jostle each other to get in front of another male. That's forty tons of "jostling"!

You'll see fully mature adults (40ft long, and about a ton a foot), "yearlings" (born last year and 20-25 ft long), and new calves, 12-15 feet in length. The mothers and an "escort" care for the newborn, and new calves will always be seen in the company of an adult or two.

As we move into our 15th year of exploring the magical waters of Socorro , many of the whales have known the vessel since they were born. So they love to come in close, take a look, say hello, and move on.

It is an unusual time of the year , even in a place like the Revillagigedos when the "unusual" is often commonplace. The water cools down by a few degrees, but that's due to prevailing ocean conditions, and is not thought to be a factor in the Humpback's migration.

The Humpbacks are one of nature's most exciting experiences, and we count ourselves privileged to be a small observer of one of the most epic journeys undertaken by oceanic marine life.


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