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Large Group Of Humpback Whales Baffles Scientists

First Posted: Mar 20, 2017 06:11 AM EDT
Whale Watching Season Underway In Sydney
A humpback whale is seen at the beginning of whale watching season.
(Photo : Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Massive animals like whales can be seen in pair or in small groups, which is why scientists are puzzled over gatherings of humpback whales in large groups off the coast of South Africa. A stream of ocean currents from Helena Bay to Cape point showed groups of over 200 whales in the years 2011, 2014 and 2015.

According to Science Recorder, these sightings contradicted with previous studies regarding these animals' behaviors. Humpback whales, in particular, were known as solitary creatures that spend most of their time alone -- or in rare cases, in smaller groups -- in the Arctic waters. In fact, before these numbers came to light, scientists got surprised by any whale groups larger than 15 members, meaning any group with 20-200 members are considered "supergroups." Hence, this phenomenon is shocking to see.

Moreover, scientists are not sure why whales tend to gather in such massive numbers. It could be the abundance of prey in the Benguela system, or there could be population spikes that caused whales to explore new hunting territory. There are also chances of these animals exploring old hunting strategies, thanks to replenished populations. Ken Findlay, lead of the study, postulated that "Behavior was always there, but its only being seen as the population makes remarkable recovery from the pressure of whaling last century."

National Geographic also pointed out that the timing of these visits are even more perplexing. Humpbacks were known to visit South Africa only during the winter months, when the water temperature is colder and where they can feed on shrimp, plankton, and small fish. 

Commercial whaling in the past greatly reduced the humpback whale populations by nearly 90 percent. At some point, fewer than 2,000 humpback whale individuals likely remained. However, the International Whaling Commission banned whaling in 1966. By 1973, the Endangered Species Act protected the humpback whales. Both actions resulted in larger populations, with over 60,000 whales today.

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