Where do humpback whales spend their winters?

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Where do humpback whales spend their winters?

There are probably thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who spend at least part of the month of March with 10 toes up on beaches in places like Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

They're not the only east coast mammals taking advantage of the heat down south.

The humpback whales that delight locals and tourists during the summer months off the coastlines of Newfoundland and Labrador are in the Dominican Republic right now too.  

They gather off the coast of Samana, in the northeastern region of the country, in an area of the Atlantic Ocean known as the Silver Bank.

Kim Beddall is a Canadian woman who founded commercial whale-watching in Samana. Beddall says the Dominican Republic is quite unique because it is home to the first national marine mammal sanctuary in the Caribbean.

"Since 1986, the world has been aware that humpback whales do come here to Dominican waters to reproduce," she said. 

Those appealing warm waves

Beddall says the warm water is as appealing to whales as warm beaches are to humans. 

"We receive, every winter, from about mid-January until the end of March, almost the entire North American humpback whale population. So, we're receiving whales from Newfoundland that travel all the way to the Dominican Republic to — if they're male — look for a female to mate with or a female looking for interesting males or mother humpback whales come here to give birth to their young," she said. 

Now, the Newfoundland and Labrador humpbacks don't greet others with a "What are you at?" or that distinctive wink and nod.

According to Kim Beddall, identifiying the east coast crowd is all in the tail.   

"Scientists in the Gulf of Maine realized around 1975 that every humpback whale has a pattern on the bottom of its tail and this pattern, we can use just [it] like a fingerprint in a human," she said. 

"If we can take a photo of that tail, we can have a natural, non-invasive method of being able to identify that individual anywhere that it's seen in the North Atlantic," said Beddall.

On a recent tour I took with Bedall, I was lucky enough to spot a local. She and her whale tour team have nicknamed one particular humpback "IV" because of distinct, letter-like markings on her flukes.  

"IV has been a regular here in Samana Bay and we didn't really ever know where she fed or where she migrated to. She was first seen here in 2005 and she was identified again in 2011 with a calf and now this year with a calf."

Beddall says a whale watcher in St. Pierre and Miquelon was able to confirm for her that "IV" feeds off the coast of Battle Harbour in Labrador.   

Citizen science

And she has received a lot more information about others from up north.

"We exchange photos and there's a lot of interest online in terms of passing information and exchanging information so there are wonderful people all over the North Atlantic collecting data on humpback whales," explained Beddall.

Beddall says the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue allows whale watchers to follow animals they've spotted.  

"Anybody can send their photos there and receive back data on where the animal had been seen previously and whether or not it is a whale that had been seen previously in the catalogue," Beddall said.

This kind of citizen science going on in the north and the south can help researchers learn a lot more about the habits of whales and, in particular, their migration patterns. 

Beddall said the problem for whales is that unlike the humans who visit the Dominican Republic, theirs is not an all-inclusive package.  

"There is nothing for them to eat here and that's why they have to migrate north," she explained.

And so, by late March or early April, the humpbacks will begin a swim of between 3,000 km and 7,000 km, in search of an all-they-can-eat capelin buffet.

It's a journey that impresses first time whale watcher Liza Rujahn of Ontario. "Astounding," said Rajahn, adding she now wants to see the humpbacks in their summer home. "I'd love to see the whales in Newfoundland!"

Meanwhile, Beddall, who lives in Pickering, Ont., said she'd love to see more whale tail photos from the east coast and more Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in the Dominican Republic.

"I would love to have more Canadians on my vessel — so if you're from Newfoundland and you want to see your whales in the winter, come on down, you're more than welcome."