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The changing behaviour of humpback whales

19.03.2020 - 14:02
Mynd: Arnór Sigurgeir Þrastarson / Arnór Sigurgeir Þrastarson
The behaviour of humpback whales appears to be changing. There are currently more of the whales in Icelandic waters than usual for the time of year, and some appear to be skipping the southward migration altogether.

A humpback that washed up dead on Reynisfjara beach in South Iceland last week was one never before spotted in Icelandic waters. The whale watching season began very strongly for Norðursigling in Húsavík, though that has now changed, of course. 

The humpback carcass discovered on Reynisfjara beach provides scientists with evidence of the changing behaviours of humpback whales. There are usually very few of the cetaceans around Iceland at this time of year, but there are now a lot of them, according to the University of Iceland website. 

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir, a postdoctoral researcher at the university, says that humpback whales are usually embarking on their long journey back to Iceland at this time of year, from locations such as the Caribbean Sea and Cape Verde. The whales’ migration patterns appear to be changing and some choose not to migrate at all. Edda says one likely reason is better availability of food in the north, even over the winter. 

Scientists can identify individual humpbacks by their unique tail fins and there is a database of pictures of all the whales that have been spotted around Iceland. Edda says that the whale found dead on Reynisfjara is not in that database and has therefore never before been recorded in Icelandic waters. A large group of whales has been noticed off the coast of Vík, and it is believed the dead whale was part of that pod. 

“There is some capelin in the area and a lot of humpbacks have been seen off the south and west coasts in recent days,” Edda says. It appears that most of the whales seen here at this time of year are not based around Iceland during the summer, however, and are rather passing through, either to winter breeding grounds in the south or summer feeding grounds in the north. 

Hörður Sigurbjarnarson, captain with Norðursigling whale watching in Húsavík, agrees with Edda. He is in no doubt that the behaviour of humpback whales is changing. Norðursigling celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and Hörður says that the number of minke whales has dropped dramatically while the number of humpbacks has shot up during that time. He says humpbacks stop off for longer in the autumn and return to Iceland earlier in the spring, and that this seems to be true in both the company’s bases in Skjálfandi and Eyjafjörður. 

Norðursigling started whale watching tours in February after a short winter break and tourists saw four or five humpbacks on the very first trip—as well as a fin whale and lots of dolphins. 

Hörður says the season started very well and that the number of bookings was similar to recent years. The situation has completely changed now, however, thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. The company was planning two tours a day but is now considering cancelling all tours until the pandemic passes. 

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