Humpback whales are a type of baleen whale. Their scientific name is Megaptera novaeangliae.
Doug Beetle chats with:
Wildlife admirer & ecotourist
Hickson Fergusson on a forest canopy walk, Brunei rainforest. Image: Hickson Fergusson
Hickson Fergusson was born and raised in Australia, where he developed a fascination for animals and zoos. After getting a Bachelor of Science studying zoology, he started travelling to different parts of the world to see and photograph animals in the wild. Hickson loves to visit islands.
Today, we talk with Hickson about humpback whales and whale watching in the South Pacific Ocean.
Doug Beetle: What made you interested in watching humpback whales? Where did you go to see them?
Hickson: I’ve always been interested in wildlife, and I like going on holidays to little-known places. One of those out-of-the-way places is Niue, a little speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I went there for a week in 2010 and then for two weeks in 2011, because one week in Niue just isn’t long enough!
Before I go anywhere I research what wildlife is found there. Before I arrived I already knew about the bird species found there and the two species of sea snakes – one of these species is found only in the waters of Niue.
I also knew Niue had humpback whales pass through on their migration. And back in 2010, Niue was one of only two places in the world where you could swim with the whales – everywhere else you must be in a boat.*
Of course, when I say “swim with the whales,” you don’t actually swim alongside them – you have to stay 100 feet (30 meters) away, but Niue has very clear water with good underwater visibility of up to 165 feet (50 meters) most days.
On the southwestern side of Niue is a large sheltered bay, Avatele Bay, where the whales often rest and sometimes calve, while on their migration. To see the whales the island’s dive company would take a small group of six people out into the bay in an inflatable boat with an outboard and would motor through the water looking for the whales.
When a whale was spotted the boat would stop some distance away and the outboard was shut off. We would quietly slide over the side into the water wearing face mask, snorkel and fins. Staying together as a group we would slowly and quietly swim towards the whale, stopping 100 feet (30 meters) away.
*Note on responsible whale-watching behavior: It is important to follow current local whale-watching guidelines and regulations. For more information on marine life viewing in waters around the USA, visit: NOAA Fisheries
Doug Beetle: Does humans being in the water with whales ever bother them? How do you know how far away to stay from them?
Hickson: The whales have been visiting Niue every year for a very long time and appear to be used to boats and people being in the water near them, as long as people keep their distance. But it’s sometimes hard to tell distance when you’re in the water, so our guides would remain standing in the boat and could better judge the distance, calling out to us when to stop and when to come back.
If a whale was showing signs of stress then we wouldn’t even get in the water, and we’d take the boat in a different direction.
Doug Beetle: What was it like swimming near whales underwater? Were you ever scared by being near such large animals?
Hickson: It was amazing! They are such massive creatures, and most of the time they’d be singing. And if they weren’t, we could usually hear another whale somewhere in the bay singing.
On my first outing we were watching a large adult on the surface when someone in the group said “There’s another one below us!”
Looking down I saw underneath us a female and her calf about 65-100 feet (20 or 30 meters) directly below. This was of some concern to me because many animals don’t like strange things directly above them, because that’s how predators often attack their prey, and females are often very protective of their young. So I moved myself away from them as quickly as I could with the others in the group.
I learnt later that the whales aren’t too bothered in that situation – they seem to know we’re stuck on the surface, and anyway, the whales are so big there’s very few predators in the ocean that would concern them – certainly not tiny little humans!
Doug Beetle: How many humpback whales did you see, and how big were they?
Hickson: It’s hard to judge size in the water but many were full grown – so around 50 feet (15 meters) long. Some days we would only see one or two whales, other days we might see four or five.
The hotel I stayed at was on a small cliff-top overlooking Avatele Bay. From the deck you can see the whales more easily than if you’re on or in the water. One day I counted 11 whales, of which at least three were calves, but those were only the ones I could see on the surface – there were more, possibly lots more, deep underwater.
Doug Beetle: Tell us what you’ve learned about humpback whales.
Hickson: Unlike the more familiar dolphins which form large pods of individuals close together, humpback whales don’t tend to group together in the same way. In Niue I normally only ever saw adult whales alone, except for females with their calves. Occasionally, from the cliff-tops, I would see a couple of adults passing close by each other, but they didn’t appear to interact.
Having said that, Humpbacks make various noises in addition to their songs, some are vocalizations but they also flipper slap and tail slap the water, making loud noises that travel a long way underwater and may be used for communication. We know whale songs can travel many, many miles underwater.
Doug Beetle: What advice do you have for young people who want to visit their favorite animals in the wild someday?
Hickson: I’m lucky in that I have a good job and by saving my earnings I can go travelling every few years to watch wildlife. And by putting money into the community (buying locally-made souvenirs, hiring local guides, eating in family-run restaurants) I’m contributing to a community and this should flow into protection of the environment.
But for younger people there are other options. Studying science at school, or college, or even university and getting qualifications might enable you to join a research team that is studying your favorite animal.
There are also many programs around the world where you can volunteer for three weeks or more, and I have friends who do this regularly. But getting good qualifications always helps.
And if you are lucky enough to have a backyard that is visited by birds or mammals or reptiles, watching those creatures will get you started in understanding and appreciating animals and their different behaviors.
Doug Beetle: Do you think that people going to visit animals in the wild can help conserve these animals and their habitats? Are there any potential problems that visiting animals in the wild can cause?
Hickson: Visiting places like Niue to see the native wildlife can definitely help to conserve the animals and their habitats. Being a small island with only a population of around 1100 people in 12 villages, there is not a lot of money coming into the island.
It’s like a small country town, but in the middle of the ocean with no big cities for hundreds of miles. So people who come to see the whales (and the spinner dolphins, and the sea snakes, and to go diving) spend a lot of money on things like accommodation, food, hire cars and souvenirs.
If the whales and dolphins were to be scared away by the local fisherman who don’t like the whales eating the fish, then the tourists would stop coming and life on the island would be much harder. So the local people encourage the wildlife because it encourages the tourists.
Of course, you can go too far, as well. If there are too many tourists and they are not managed properly, then the wildlife may be scared off by all the attention.