by Amelie Laute
Obviously, we can’t read a whale’s mind and it’s daring to pretend to do so. Still, by trying to understand the threats whales are facing from their perspective, even if it includes projecting our emotions onto an animal, we hopefully might remember more easily and more often what we can do every day to prevent them from dying because of our mistakes. Once a month, we want to show you one of the many worries a whale has to face and give you tips on how you can avoid contributing to their suffering. We will give you a little challenge to implement in your daily routine to start your action.
Imagine you are a humpback whale, big and hungry. You’ve just travelled thousands of miles from the Cape Verde Islands, where you spent the last summer mating, and now a little calf is growing inside you. Slowly, to avoid exhaustion, you glide through the waves, always heading north. For weeks and weeks, you were swimming across an entire ocean to reach what now lays ahead: the rich waters of Iceland. For generations, your family came here as soon as it was warm enough, it is the perfect place to meet the need to fill your empty stomach. You haven’t eaten for months, you have spent all your energy on travelling, mating and nourishing your growing baby. You have lost about 1/3 of your body weight. You’re very hungry! The closer you come, the greener the water becomes. You can sense the abundance of fish and krill that is about to feed you and your growing offspring. Not much farther and you will reach the shore. There, you know, you will find enough food to store up the blubber you need to travel back to the tropics next winter, and to raise and nourish your calf. You are excited!
But, the closer you come, the more you can hear it again. You remember, it started a while ago and it’s becoming louder and louder each year. There are sounds in the water that weren’t there when you were a little whale. You reach the coast, finally, but also the sounds have largely increased in volume now. You ignore the disturbance and begin to feed. Diving down, opening your huge mouth, diving up, pressing out all the water and swallowing. What a feast! You continue eating and filling your stomach. But then the noise increases in volume again, in fact it seems to come right towards you. You can see a dark shape floating on the surface. You try to ignore it, just keep eating, you think. Again, you rise to the surface, your mouth full of food, and you risk a glimpse above the water. You can see the object belonging to the shadow on the surface, it’s sticking out of the water, something or someone is moving on top. You breathe a few times, then you dive down. Trying to avoid the noise disturbance, you swim away from the unknown object, food is plentiful all around. But the object seems to follow, as soon as you show yourself at the surface, it approaches. Again, you try to swim further, but the noise follows. In fact, a second and soon a third object joins and the noise becomes unbearable. What can you do? To show your dislike and maybe to even scare these objects – whatever they are – away, you take all your strength, dive down, then rise and breach out of the water+. The huge splash you cause echoes among the noise underwater. Instead of leaving, though, the objects seem to be even attracted by your breach. Even more of them join in. It’s difficult to think about feeding now, so you start heading north, trying to leave the bay. Breathe little, swim fast. And indeed, this helps. Far out, they don’t follow, the noise level decreases, you can spend more time at the surface again. But also, there isn’t enough food here. Maybe it will be better tomorrow, you think.
The next day, you swim back into the bay and immediately you can hear them again. Oh no! Just like yesterday, they come closer, you stop feeding, you leave. More and more days like this follow. Only in the late evenings and nights is it quiet enough to return and fill your stomach. But that means far less food than usual. The summer progresses, nothing changes. Still so much noise, still hungry. Once in a while the sounds are even that loud you can’t focus on orientation properly anymore. Also, communicating with your fellow humpback whales becomes difficult. How can they hear you above all this noise! The weeks go by and slowly the water becomes colder again. You know you will have to leave soon, or you won’t make it in time to the tropics to give birth to your calf in the warm waters of the south. In the old days you would be fat and full now, instead you still feel the need to keep eating today. But you don’t have a choice. One morning you make your decision and start travelling. You’re glad to leave the daily noise, even though the other parts of the ocean are also not as quiet as they used to be. At least those noises aren’t following you everywhere. However, your doubts remain. Will you have accumulated enough fat to raise and feed your baby? And when you return next summer, will there be even more noise? How will your little one cope?
[This story is completely fictional. By imagining what our actions, like whale watching, MIGHT cause to the whales, we can learn respect and try to avoid further impacts even without knowing exactly how they feel.]
+ DISCLAIMER: honestly, we have no idea why humpback whales breach, but it may be for a number of reasons. Breaching does not necessarily mean that whales are feeling stressed or threatened by human activities.
Breaching humpback whale in Skjálfandi Bay. Why is it doing this?
Start a local Monday. Try to plan on eating and buying everything from your region on one day of the week! The more often you do that, the easier it will become, and you can extend it to more days of the week.
Interesting study on noise related levels of stress in right whales: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/oclj/vol18/iss1/12/