13.12.2019 – White wings
The superstitious ones amongst us would not expect an afternoon trip out on the ocean on a date like Friday the 13th to go as wonderfully as the one we enjoyed this afternoon. Our spotter directed us a couple of miles from the coastline to a small group of interactive Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis), probably one of the last sightings of this warm-water loving species before the cold weather really sets in here in Madeira. One of the spotted dolphins, a darker coloured animal that probably had a pigment anomaly, swam alongside the group of Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) that accompanied us as we were attempting to enjoy a sighting with Short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus). The pilot whales were preoccupied with hunting in the depths of the Atlantic and showed little interest in our pretty traditional boat and its charming guests, so eventually we called it a day and began to head back to the marina. At that point in time the spotted dolphin with the pigment animals seemed to be the highlight of the trip to me…but the Atlantic had something else in store for us.
I consider myself an amateur whale-watcher, since I haven’t nearly experience the variety of cetacean species our worlds oceans contain in my two years of working as a guide in Madeira. So the large animal with a barely recognisable dorsal fin that surfaced a mile off the marina of Calheta could have been anything. We first assumed it was a young Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)…but it swam more like a beaked whale although it was too large to be one… The animal was curious and approached the rear of the Ribeira Brava, revealing its knobbly head. I hesitated with my theory on which species it may be since sightings of the one I had mind are rare. Then, a quick look at my underwater footage showed the animals unmistakeable angelic-looking white flippers and it was confirmed; we were in the presence of a Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).
I think my excitement was so obvious I must have embarrassed myself but I was genuinely overjoyed. And I was not alone; everyone was delighted at this spectacular surprise. Humpbacks have been seen breaching in front of Funchal but, as transient animals migrating incredible distances to their designated feeding and mating areas, only stop by very briefly. This is Lobosonda’s fourth sighting of this charismatic species, so this encounter is definitely not to be taken for granted! Humpbacks were hunted almost down to extinction with their numbers in the Southern Hemisphere being reduced to as few as a couple of hundreds in the 1950s. Conservation efforts have had an immensely successful impact and have allowed these key populations to about 93% of their pre-exploitation levels.
Despite still being victims of sound pollution, fishing net entanglement and boat collisions, Humpback whales are living proof that natural populations will thrive if we manage them efficiently. They are flagship species for the protection of the worlds oceans, charismatic animals that encourage humanity to protect our natural world. The reason why they are considered flagship species became evident during this magnificent encounter; the ocean would most certainly be so much more empty without Humpback whales.
By Paula Thake
Sightings of the day
15:00 Atlantic spotted dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, Short-finned pilot whales, Humpback whale