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Humpback Whale Migration Patterns

A very popular question that arises while out on our whale watching cruises is the question of when is the best time of the year to see whales in the Jersey shore area and the best time of the day to see them. The question, although appearing to be basic since the Jersey Shore sees whales very often, has a lot of background information needed to answer correctly. Each year whales must migrate to warmer waters to mate, give birth to their live young, and raise their calf. Whales use their senses to follow the weather, water conditions, feeding grounds, and more to find a healthy location to stay for a while. The basic idea of migration is that during the warmer season, whales will migrate to cooler waters, so they will travel towards the poles. During the cooler season, whales travel to the tropics for the warmer water. In the Northern Hemisphere, we see whales traveling closer to the Equator during the winter season as they are searching for warm waters to mate and breed in. Northern, cooler waters tend to be more nutrient rich than the water in the tropics, so the whales tend to travel North to feed. These waters will most likely be more nutrient rich due to the continuous upwelling, which brings the warmer, nutrient rich water from the bottom of the ocean to the surface, creating a constant flow of nutrients. Cold water can better hold the important nutrients required for the whales, which does make the water look ‘dirty’; however, this ‘dirty’ water is much better for marine mammals and organisms than the crystal clear water in the tropics.

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Photo credit: Riccardo Pravettoni (Follow link)

The most common whale we see within the Cape May/Wildwood area of New Jersey is the Humpback Whale. The Humpback Whale is a baleen whale and considered a marine mammal; they do give birth to live young, which impacts their migration patterns that they follow year in and year out. These seasonal migrations completed by the Humpback Whales are considered the longest migration paths performed by any mammal. Scientists have seen Humpback Whales migrate from the freezing Arctic waters to the warm tropic waters in one migration season. Humpback Whales are one of the few types of whales than can be found throughout the waters all over the world.

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Photo Credit: NMFS (Follow link)

When traveling to the high latitude polar waters in our summer season, these Humpback Whales will feed on krill, plankton, and very small fish. After travelling south, the whales will give birth and migrate back north. This is time that we see the whales passing through our waters during the summer months. The young calves will travel right beside the mother whales, sometime touching tails as though they are communicating with each other. The calves have not grown enough to have the strength to travel 6500km of water with no help, often the travel so close to their mother to use the propulsion created by mother’s movements to guide themselves through the water. The mothers will nurse the calves for up to a year, but it will take around ten years before the whale is fully grown to the possible 60 feet in length. The whales are massive creatures, but move at a surprising 5mph. However, during their migration, it is common for these whales to slow to a rate of 1 mph to ensure they can rest, eat, and socialize at their pleasure.

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In conclusion, there is no ‘perfect’ time of the day or year to go whale watching. The Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center finds whales throughout the entire season, from March to November in Cape May, New Jersey. Whales are constantly in movement whether it’s searching for a place for eating, for mating, or for giving birth. Mornings or afternoons make little difference on the chance of having a whale sighting. The most important thing to remember and consider while on a whale watching trip is that you are out in nature and observing these incredible animals in their most natural and happiest environment. We cannot predict their location or migration patterns; however, the reward you feel for seeing a mother and calf Humpback Whale passing you by at their own pleasure is one like no other.

-Kate Sidell, Boston University; Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center