Hawaii’s Humpback Whales Missing In 2016: Are Alaska’s Whale Deaths Related?

Hawaii’s humpback whales are missing in large numbers based upon early 2016 reports. Normally, beginning in early November, around 10,000 humpback whales travel from Alaska to Hawaii in order spend the winter in the warmer waters off the Hawaian islands. But, so far, officials at the Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary say they have not been seeing the usual number of humpback whale sightings, making it a mystery to be solved. While it’s possible the El Nino weather patterns are a factor, earlier in the fall of 2015 other researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noticed an alarming number of whale deaths near Alaska.

In a related report by the Inquisitr, Japan announced plans to resume whaling, and over the next 12 years they intend on butchering 4,000 minke whales in the Antarctic, although 333 of the whales will be killed for research.

Brian Powers is an aerial photographer who has spent years capturing photos of Hawaii’s humpback whales from the air. According to West Hawaii Today, he says he has not had a single whale sighting in either 2015 or 2016, which he considers very unusual for this time of year.

“I’ve been looking for the last month and have not seen one,” he said. “This time of year, cars are usually lined up on the edge of the Akoni Pule Highway as whale watchers gather roadside and on hills to take in the nearshore displays of pec slapping, blows and the giant, lunging breaches of aggressive and amorous males.

At the same time, Hawaii Ocean Sports reports seeing some humpback whales in Hawaii’s waters, but there have been excursions with no whales at all. When speaking to the Associated Press, Ed Lyman of the Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary said that Hawaii’s humpback whales are missing their usual numbers. There are multiple theories for why they are so noticeably delayed, including the warmer water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean caused by El Nino, but it’s possible the whales themselves are responsible for the delays.

Whale Fossil was an ancient "Moby Dick"
The bones of a blue whale from the inside. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

The second theory is hopeful since it assumes the humpback whale population has actually increased enough that their trek from Alaska to Hawaii has been delayed. When whales take their winter vacation in Hawaii, they actually do not eat at all, so they must live off the fat reserves they generated while hunting for food in the polar waters. If the whale population is larger, it is possible this process could take longer than usual.

“What I’m seeing out there right now I would’ve expected a month ago,” said Lyman. “One theory was that something like this happened as whales increased. It’s a product of their success. With more animals, they’re competing against each other for that food resource, and it takes an energy of reserve to make that long migration over 2,000 miles.”

Unfortunately, there is a third theory with a grim ending. Reports note the “unusual mortality event” which occurred in 2015, where 30 whales were found dead in Alaska’s waters. Although NOAA scientists were uncertain of the cause at the time, they say it’s “highly unlikely” the whale deaths were caused by the release of cesium radiation by the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan.

“Our leading theory at this point is that the harmful algal bloom has contributed to the deaths,” said NOAA spokesperson Julie Speegle. “But we have no conclusive evidence.”

The working hypothesis was that the dying whales were being killed by domoic acid, a toxin produced by warmth-induced algae blooms. In their report, NOAA stated there seemed to be a link, since “when the density of algae dropped, so did the number of deaths.” At the same time, the study’s authors concluded that the “correlation is not definitive proof that the algae [bloom] caused the [whale] deaths, but is strongly suggestive.”

“Given the lack of solid evidence the new study does not definitively prove that the toxic algae caused the spike in deaths of whale calves. But it does offer strong circumstantial evidence, and that puts researchers in a better position to understand the possible impacts of future algal blooms,” said Gregory Doucette, coauthor of the paper, according to EcoWatch. “For us, the more opportunities we have to try to examine that relationship, to link up these mortality events to potentially toxic blooms, the better we can assess the possible effects.”

Baby Orca [Photo by Mike Aguilera/SeaWorld San Diego via Getty Images]The sudden increase in whale deaths was not the only mystery. In addition, Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist with B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture, says that all of the orca calves have been dying in recent years.

“We haven’t had any survivals in babies for a couple of years,” he said. “We have had stillborns and newborns die and a number of whales that appear to be pregnant but didn’t ultimately produce any calves. It’s like zero survival in birth rate here.”

Even if the mystery of Hawaii’s humpback whales is not related at all to Alaska’s whale deaths, there is still cause for concern over the humpback whale population. According to the California-based Marine Mammal Center, fewer than 10 percent of the humpbacks’ original population remains.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)