I love whales and whale watching, and am blessed to live in an area frequented by several species of whales – during the summer and early fall, that is. They come to gorge on the bounty of the deep and sheltered waters of our beautiful Bay of Fundy. But where are they this time of year? And what about the whale species that we never see on the western shores of the North Atlantic, where are they? You are about to find out in the sequence of maps below. But first …
While I was researching these questions (aka googling) I came across a reason for us all to pay homage to whales over and above their magnificence in the sea. As it turns out, whales are one of nature’s best weapons against climate change. When it comes to saving the planet, one whale is worth thousands of trees! Who knew?! We humans spent 150+ years killing hundreds of thousands of them, mostly for their oil, thanks to the worldwide commercial whaling industry, that was finally banned – with a few exceptions and a few cheaters – only in 1986. Hundreds of thousands of these noble, gentle giants gone.
Scientists now know that the carbon capture potential of whales is truly remarkable. Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies throughout their long lives (80-90 years). When they die, their bodies sink to the bottom of the ocean, where they basically serve as carbon capture and storage units. Each large whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. A tree, meanwhile, absorbs only up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year. Yet another seriously compelling reason not to be killing whales.
For those of you interested in knowing more, there’s a great starting point at an article entitled Nature’s solution to climate change.
With regard to Christmas location, whales are known for their intelligence, which is evidenced by the fact that most of them spend their summers in the colder waters, sucking down all that krill, and then head for the warmer climes once things turn really cold. Unlike us humans, they don’t have to cancel their usual travel plans this year because of COVID restrictions.
They’re a varied lot, as this image from Encyclopedia Britannica shows.
On Christmas Day, most blue whales in the northern hemisphere will be enjoying the warm waters of places like the Gulf of California and the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, and off the coast of Costa Rica. In the southern hemisphere it’s summer, so they’re busy feasting on the largess of the waters of the Antarctic.
Blue whales are the largest animal ever known to have lived on Earth, including dinosaurs. Even their babies pop out at around 8,800 pounds (4,000 kg) with a length of some 26 feet (8 meters). Ouch! It is estimated that there are 10,000 – 25,000 blue whales worldwide, down from hundreds of thousands if not millions pre commercial whaling.
On Christmas Day, finbacks will be hiding from view to the best of their ability, keeping us guessing. Fin whales are found in all oceans of the world and generally make seasonal migrations from low-latitude wintering areas to high-latitude summer feeding grounds, but its patterns are not well known. Hence the migration track arrow on the map legend, with no migration routes showing!
It is believed that there are presently 50,000 to 120,000 finbacks worldwide, down from an estimated 500,000 before commercial whaling took charge.
We were out whale watching in the Bay of Fundy one summer when a fin decided to dive under our boat. We watched its back as it disappeared under the boat and the whale’s body just kept coming and coming and coming, kind of like it had no end. They’re not quite as big as a blue whale, but, boy, they are long!
Gray whales are few in number and very restricted in habitats, unlike the Blue and Fin. As they have for millennia, they migrate 4,000 miles each way between the Arctic Seas of Alaska and Siberia and the shallow lagoons off Baja California. There are thought to be about 20,000 Grays, which is nearly back to pre-whaling numbers after their near decimation during the whaling years. There are a few hundred gray whales in the western north Pacific, but not much is known about them.
As you can see from their migration map, humpbacks are enjoying Christmas Day in their winter-holiday breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere (maybe ours are just off the coast of Cuba), while the southern humpbacks feast on the krill of Antarctic waters. We are blessed with visits from humpbacks in the Bay of Fundy in late July – September. On one whale-watching trip a few years ago we were treated to about 20 of them near our tour boat, breaching as if performing a dance for us. Simply magical.
On Christmas Day Narwhals are most likely celebrating under the sea ice in Baffin Bay, Nunavut in Canada. These long-tusk “unicorns of the sea” are loyal year-round inhabitants of the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. The majority of the world’s narwhals winter for up to five months under the sea ice in the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait area between Canada and western Greenland (to each his own). The world population is estimated to be around 50,000.
On Christmas Day you will find the world’s belugas pretty much in the same places you’d find them the rest of the year, except for the highest reaches of the Arctic, which is too ice-covered for them in winter so they’ll be just south of the seasonal ice shelf.
Belugas swim among icebergs and ice floes in the icy waters of the arctic and subarctic year round. Surprisingly, belugas are also found in the St. Lawrence River estuary in Quebec (Canada), a lot further south than all other belugas. My very first whale sighting of all was seeing a pair of belugas swimming in the St. Lawrence as we crossed by ferry from the north shore to the south shore. What a delightful surprise!
On Christmas Day, you’ll find the sperm whales swimming somewhere in moderate temperature waters in the northern hemisphere and feasting on the largess of the Antarctic waters in the southern hemisphere. The reality is that you’d probably have a tough time finding them wherever they are; although they can be found throughout the deep oceans around the world, they’re fairly elusive.
The best estimate of the global sperm whale population is between 300,000 and 450,000 individuals.
Killer Whales (Orcas)
Christmas Day will find some Antarctic killer whales holidaying on the shores of Brazil and Uruguay, etc. during the Antarctic winter, but most will be spending Christmas in their pod’s perennial territory. Orcas are distributed throughout the oceans of the world, but are most frequently found off Antarctica (except when it’s really cold), Iceland, Norway and Pacific North America.
North Atlantic Right Whales
These lovely but seriously endangered whales will be spending Christmas Day in their breeding/calving grounds off the coast of Florida and Georgia.
Another Bay of Fundy visitor, North Atlantic Right Whales are among the most endangered whales in the world. There are fewer than 370 individuals in existence in the western North Atlantic Ocean—they migrate between feeding grounds in the Labrador Sea and their winter calving areas off Georgia and Florida, an ocean area with heavy shipping traffic. In the eastern North Atlantic, on the other hand—with a total population reaching into the low teens at most—scientists believe that they may already be functionally extinct. Collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing nets have accounted for nearly half of all North Atlantic right whale deaths since 1970.
Whales – a gift to us all. Merry Christmas!