Our Weekend with Whales

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This juvenile whale was probably trying to impress a female when we saw him off the coast of Puerto Lopez this weekend.

Humpback whales are experiencing a resurgence. By the 1960s, when whaling was outlawed by the International Whaling Commission, there may have been as few as 5,000 in the world. Now there may be as many as 80,000 – still just more than half of the original population of around125,000.

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A humpback’s flipper can be up to 15 feet long. This photo we took offers a good sense of scale.

Puerto Lopez, a small coastal town in Ecuador, is a showcase for the success of conservation efforts. Each year, humpbacks migrate from icy polar seas to the area’s balmy equatorial waters to breed. From June to September, tour boats take visitors (like Bruno and I this past weekend) around Puerto Lopez’s bay to see whales trying to win each other’s hearts. Male whales try to impress the females by slapping the surface of the water with their giant flippers, or by jumping as high out of the water as they can, in a show of strength. This is particularly impressive, as the animals weigh as much as 40 tons and can measure 50 feet long, though males are slightly smaller than females. Needless to say we were awed by the show.

We were also grateful that the whales didn’t seem to mind the presence of multiple tour boats trailing after them. I’ve often thought that because humpback whales live as long as 100 years, some may be old enough to remember being hunted by the same species who now pay just to watch them swim.

Off a short stretch of coast from Ecuador to Colombia, the whales impress their mates, breed, give birth, and begin raising their young – all on an empty stomach. Humpbacks eat only krill, which are found only in the cold waters of the poles, so during the mating season, they have no food. We were lucky to see them in the last weeks of their Ecuador sojourn, because by October, they will have all headed home to eat.

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