Humpback Whales Off Central America

Last night I attended a presentation, given by Kristin Rasmussen, entitled “Humpback Whales Off Central America”. Kristin is a scientist that has been studying the humpback whale for many years. I believe she said she had a Danish background and spoke excellent English and as well as Spanish that I envy. She gave the presentation in English and Lic. Nixa G. de Ríos, of Oteima, translated it into Spanish. Not only did I learn a lot about humpback whales, I also received a Spanish lesson.

Kristin gave a PowerPoint presentation, that showed her studies of the migrating habits of Humpback Whales that migrate to Central America for the purpose of mating and giving birth. I tried to take the best notes I could, so I could pass the information on to you. I felt like I was back in college and I was listening to an expert professor talking of her latest studies. The fact is, that is exactly what I was doing. Forgive my note taking, If Kristin happens to read this post, I hope she corrects any errors I have made.

If I remember correctly she said that whales and dolphins belong to Cetaceans. There are 78 species. 40 are dolphins and 37 are whales. I don’t know about the other species. Of the 37 species of whales, 20 are observed off the coast of Panama.

Humpback whales do not have any teeth. What they have are called plates of Baleen. The whales range between 38 and 50 feet in length. The females are the largest (wouldn’t you just know it – I guess this is equivalent of the female wearing the pants in this species as well).

They weigh between 25 and 30 tons. That is a whale of a lot. Or would that be a lot of whale?

The calves are about 12 feet in length when they are born. So that would make them close to 1/3 of the size of the adult at birth. WOW.

During the time in Panama and during this birthing process, the whales don’t eat. I forget the amount of weight that the females loose during this process, but it was a large amount.

Normally, the whales eat about 1½ tons of food a day. I forget the name, but it was a small form of shrimp like critters. She said the whales would take in thousands in a single gulp.

Migrations to Panama occur from both the northern and southern hemisphere. The migration of whales in each hemisphere, is an inverse to the migrations of the other hemisphere. As was stated before, they come to central America (including Panama), to mate and give birth and they return to their feeding areas. Kristin’s, slides showed the migration paths and how one group would be coming as the other would be going.

The scientists are using a very interesting technique of identifying individual whales. They do this, by taking photos of the tail when it comes out of the water. Each whale has unique tail colorings just as humans each have different fingerprints. She had photos of the same whale that had being taken in California and then in Panama, and other photos of another whale in Chile and then in Panama. Very interesting!

The reason for migrating to Central America to give birth, is simple. They need to be in warm water so the calves will survive. The temperature of the water in Central America where the whale sightings take place is about 28,3 C (83 F).

The northern hemisphere migration is from California, and the southern migration is from the tip if Chile and Antarctica. During July to October, the largest number of whales are sited in Panama in the Gulf of Chiriquí.

Kristin said that she was currently trying to identify if the northern and southern hemisphere whales ever meet. You remember the old saying, “East is East and West is West, but never the twain shall meet”. Well I guess there is still some question about north and south, at least when it comes to whales. 🙂

To accomplish this task, they are using a technology called hydrophone, which is underwater microphones to record the whales singing. It seems that the males sing to the females when they are courting (apparently it makes the females feel frisky) and the north and the south sing differently. These microphones remain in place year around and if they detect the two different song types during the same time period, they will know that the two groups have met. How neat is that! Kristin played some of the songs that that the males sang. While it didn’t do anything for me, I have decided that maybe learning to sing creates opportunities, I never understood before.

The northern hemisphere whales migrate 5,200 km (2,808 nautical miles) and the southern hemisphere migrate 8,300 km (4482). Remember, each group is traveling that far to get into water that is warm enough to give birth.

If humans had to go that far to give birth and have sex I think the species would have died out long ago.

One of the reasons that Kristin was giving this presentation, was to let Panamanians know how important that Panama is to the preservation of the humpback species. This is the only place in the world that a species of whale, in two different populations, migrate during the winter. It is very important that the habitat is preserved.

Another reason was that she wanted to involve more Panamanian students that might be interested in assisting in the study of whales. She provided her email address for the students to contact her.

This was a most interesting presentation, and I commend Otiema for offering it. The last presentation ,I saw in the same location, was the movie The Inconvenient Truth. Oteima does an outstanding service, in making the community aware of environmental needs of Panama.

Thank you Oteima and thank you Kristin.

9 thoughts on “Humpback Whales Off Central America

  1. Interesting topic – I thought most of the whales migrating from the north went no further south than the tip of the Baja peninsula, but perhaps that is mainly gray whales. We often see whale watching boats tied up at various docks in the islands of Puget Sound country, but again, these are primarily Gray whales traveling between Alaska and Baja or the occaissional resident Orca pod.

  2. Hi Gordo. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. It was an interesting presentation. I hope to get out to the areas where the whales are one of these days.

  3. Enjoyed reading your note-taking on humpbacks. One of my travel agency’s specialty is whale watching, as well as orchid tours. The shrimp like critters are “krill” and the identifying part of the tail is the “fluke”. If ever our home is sold and we move to Boquete, I will be retiring and could donate several books on whales to the local library for Panamanian students who might be interested. If you could provide me with an address, I would be more than happy to bring them down when next we visit.

  4. Hi Yvette. You are correct, the word I couldn’t remember was krill. We might give the books to Lic. Nixa G. de Ríos of Oteima, and have her help determine the best place for the books to go. I am sure the books are in English, so it would be better for them to go to a place where the students are more proficient in English.

    Thanks for leaving a comment.

  5. Hey Don,
    I’m a newcomer to Panama and last week took my boat out from Boca Chica for a test run to Isla Secas. As soon as we got outside the islands clutching the coastline, we started seeing humpback whales exhaling and rolling at the surface. What a hoot! Looking forward to many more trips. Wish I had a hydrophone.
    Thanks for sharing.


  6. Hi Ricardito. Thanks for leaving a comment. Isla Secas was mentioned last night as a sighting location. I bet it would be a hoot. I would love to see them.

  7. Hello
    Isla Secas was mentioned as a sighting place. Where (and I can’t think of any better information to share) else can we see them. I want to see them. Reading about them is very nice but not exactly as good as seeing them.

  8. Thanks for sharing the story about the humpback whales. I was in the Pedesí area a week ago and had the privilege to see a mother humpback and its calf breaching out of the water. This sighting was off the coast from Isla Iguana. Our boat was not that close but because of the size of the both the mother and calf they seemed to be closer than they were. It was amazing!

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