Humpback whales aren’t known for being social butterflies of the ocean. In fact, they tend to be introverted and somewhat isolated, traveling in small packs that rarely ever go over seven individuals. Which is why researchers aren’t exactly sure what to make of the mysteriously large number of whales that have been discovered off the southwest coast of South Africa in the past few years.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Ken Findlay, lead researcher out of Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa.
In the years of 2011, 2014 and 2015, at least 22 sightings of humpback whale ‘super-groups’ were reported by research vessels. That’s not including the numerous other sightings by public entities traveling the region.
"[W]e propose that the 'super-group' feeding phenomenon (as tightly spaced large groups of whales) is a relatively recent behaviour exhibited by these whales," says Findlay and his team.
"[N]o such dense feeding aggregations have been reported elsewhere in low or mid latitudes during Southern Hemisphere humpback whale migrations. Indeed, aggregations of whales of this size have seldom been reported in the literature, with 'large' groups often numbering in the range of 10 to 20 or less."
Oddly enough, it’s not just the large packs of whales that is mysterious--it’s also the fact that they’re near South Africa at a time when they’re typically feeding in the polar regions of Antarctica.
Researchers aren’t 100 percent sure what the true reason behind this strange behavior is, but they have a few theories floating around. The first one being that it could be due to changes in ocean conditions that are subsequently altering the amount of food that is available. The other one being that the population of humpback whales is rising.
Humpback whales were seen to gather around the coasts of South Africa back in 1914 when their population numbers were incredibly high, leading researchers to ponder whether or not they are simply reverting back to an old feeding pattern that was seen before the whaling industry killed off a majority of the creatures.
Whatever the reason may be, scientists say these new patterns are likely here to stay--because what’re you going to do about the gatherings of a creature that weighs 66,000 pounds? If the coasts of South Africa are to be the next big humpback whale feeding ground, it’s important for us to make sure that they are safe.
"Despite the unknown cause of this recent behaviour, we postulate that the area has developed or is developing into an important seasonal humpback whale feeding ground that attracts significant immigration into the region in the late austral spring/early summer," concludes Findlay’s team.
You can read more about the study here!
h/t Science Alert