17 June 2020
There has been one very lonely whale off of Rarotonga for the past couple of weeks.
He’s seen mostly logging at the surface, and despite his ability to be quite acrobatic, he seems to spend most of his time resting. After observing him from shore all day Saturday, Nan Hauser and her team headed out Sunday morning to see exactly who this whale was.
After spending all day Saturday just off Avatiu Harbour, Nan and her team found the whale off Arorangi, logging peacefully at the surface. After taking photo-IDs of the left and right side of his dorsal fin, the patterned ventral side of his tail fluke and his head, collecting a small piece of sloughed skin for genetics and stable isotopes, Nan made a comment that she wished that she could find him some dolphins to play with since he was the only humpback around. About two hours later, her wish became a reality. In Nan’s 30 years of studying whales, she has watched dolphins interact with humpbacks but the encounters were usually only a few minutes long. Dolphins sometimes bow ride the whale’s head and then quickly go their own way … so, this was an unusual and exciting event on Sunday. Our somewhat sad, young humpback, who appeared to be 3 or 4 years old, saw the pod of spinner dolphins and turned into a playful and silly youngster! The dolphins were as excited as the humpback was. It was a 25 minute encounter of playing, leaping, splashing, laying on his back with his pectoral fins straight up in the air, twisting, turning, rolling, and racing! What a joyful sight!! He continued around the island after his encounter and headed straight out into deeper water off the south side. Once he had traveled a couple of miles out, Marisa noticed dolphins in the distance as she pointed back towards the reef. Trying not to anthropomorphize the situation, Nan chuckled that he could probably hear the dolphins calling underwater and that he would turn back for more fun. Indeed he did just that!! He bee-lined right for the pod of spinner dolphins and again had a romper room session of wrestling, spinning and exhibiting pure fun! For a scientist, this was very unusual and intriguing behaviour! Nan was laughing and filming from the boat in awe!
Because of Covid-19, funding for research has been very limited this year. Nan’s team works for the love of whales without pay, but the research requires funding to pay for fuel, sample analysis, educational outreach, etc. Back in January, Nan met a new friend named Megan, who held a Facebook fundraiser in memory of her baby boy that had died. His name was “Smith.” Her contribution was an incredible surprise to the team and Nan had promised that the first whale of the season would be named after him. We could hardly wait to call her and tell her about this incredible whale now named “Smith.” It was a tearful conversation … Tears of joy and remembrance of a little child that never got the chance to play. It is perfect that this wondrous whale will swim the Oceans and spread his playfulness and joy of life across Oceania.