Nature Blog

Singing humpback whales in the North of Iceland

 Breaching humpback whale ( Megaptera novaeangliae )

Breaching humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Bit by bit we learn some new and interesting things about whales, and usually they manage to surprise us with every new finding. One of those recent and surprising findings involved the singing enthusiasm of male humpback whales during their mating season in Icelandic waters.

The enchanting and yet out-of-this-world songs of the male humpback whales are broadcasted by males in heat during their mating season which takes place each winter. The humpback whales, both males and females, take on a long journey every year from their high latitude feeding grounds and down to their tropical breeding grounds. That is where pregnant females give birth and males fight over receptive females. 

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The songs play an important role in the whole mating scene, though not particularly to impress females but rather to synchronize and orientate males on the breeding ground. Remarkably, the males sing day and night for months at a time while the mating season lasts and once it is over, they turn quite silent, though not entirely, for the rest of the year where time is more or less spent on feeding.

Few years ago, I had been recording sounds from Skjálfandi Bay as I was working on my whale research at the University of Iceland's Research Center in Húsavík. Recordings were collected from the bay during approximately 3 years period in total. The most surprising findings were recordings of chorusing humpback whales singing day and night every winter from approximately December to March off the NE-coast.

An "Icelandic" humpback whale song from N-Iceland

Edda E. Magnúsdóttir (recordings)


These findings showed us that humpback whales (at least some) feeding in Icelandic waters are in little hurry once winter arrives. Instead of leaving the nutritive waters of Iceland in the fall some whales linger on a little bit longer feeding and apparently singing actively until early spring. These new findings have shown us that the coastal waters off N-Iceland are an important habitat for humpback whales throughout the year, both for feeding and possibly for opportunistic mating attempts while still having access to an abundance of food. Once they start migrating south, they will have little or nothing to eat, thus starving until arriving back in Iceland. 

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir, Marine Biologist


Noisy Ocean

 Killer whales in Skjálfandi Bay

Killer whales in Skjálfandi Bay

Whales and dolphins rely heavily on sound communication underwater along with most other marine mammals, and actually other marine organisms such as fish and shrimps. 

Whales and dolphins have the ability to produce variety of sounds in different behavioural context and to receive these signals, evaluate their meaning and even to locate the sound source, these animals have an exceptionally acute sense of hearing. 

Different species have different sensitivity to different sound frequency levels. Toothed whales, such as sperm whales, dolphins and beaked whales have adapted to producing high frequency sounds (> 20 kHz) for short range communication and directional broadband pulses for navigation. Since toothed whales are generally highly social animals they do not need to communicate over hundreds of kilometers such as the more solitary baleen whales. Therefore, more diverse, high frequency signals can be used for complex communication without having to worry about attenuation of the sounds over long distances.

Low frequency sounds take longer time to attenuate in the ocean and can be carried longer distances than the high frequency sounds. That is why killer whales, white-beaked dolphins and other dolphin species lower their "voice" while increasing the sound intensity when they need to communicate over long distances (e.g. few kilometers).

Baleen whales, however, produce lower frequency sound signals which are more suitable for long-range communication. These signals are generally simpler and less diverse such as the complex whistles of the dolphins, but with increased distance the signals change due to attenuation. So, a complex signal changes drastically over a long distance and might sound very differently to the receiver. The intended receiver of the signal needs to understand its meaning though it changes significantly. Therefore, baleen whales rely on low frequency (~10-5000 Hz) sounds with relatively simple contour for long-range communication.

The problem facing these animals, particularly those that need to communicate over long distances, is the ever increasing noise in the ocean. The ocean environment is certainly rich of various natural sounds, such as wave sounds, wind across the sea surface, tidal or storm surges, seismic events and sound producing animals, to name just few. However, man-made sounds are becoming an increasing part of the marine soundscape. These man-made sounds are, for example, generated by ship traffic, construction activities, airguns during seismic surveys, low-flying aircrafts, among other sources.

The whale calls are cancelled out as a ship passes by, even tens of kilometers away. With constant ship traffic into important habitats of the whales, their social network is constantly being ripped and reformed. When the whales are unable to communicate they will have trouble finding each other and are thus forced to spend more time alone. Studies have even shown that some species need to increase or lower their pitch and increase the amplitude of their sounds to get the message across. Such development is very stressful for these animals and will certainly reduce their ability to survive in the nearest future.

This topic is particularly relevant for the Arctic areas right now where shipping traffic, seismic surveys and oil drilling has been and will be increasing in the next years


Photo credit: Stefan Fichtel. Sources: C. W. Clark, Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Brandon Southall , University of California, Santa Cruz; Kathleen Vigness-Raposa , Marine Acoustics, Inc

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Marine biologist, University of Iceland


White Whale NEWS

One can only become ecstatic when hearing about a new White Whale finding. These findings are of course exceptionally rare. Indeed, we know about most of these few that have been sighted in nature, but they are rare nonetheless. 

Despite the rarity, three reported sightings of white sperm whales have been made in the Mediterranean waters this summer, one off Toulon, France, on the 6th of August and two other near Sardinia, Italy in early August. It is not clear whether this is the same animal or more than one.

The whale sighted off Toulon is probably not an albino but rather a leucistic individual. Different from albinos, where the animal completely lacks the pigment melanin, the leucistic mammals have partially reduced production of multiple types of pigments, not only melanin. Therefore, these animals have fair skin or patchy coloration. The following picture shows a white-yellowish pigmented sperm whale, hence the suspicion of a leucistic sperm whale swimming about in the Mediterranian at the moment.

It is incredibly odd, yet beautiful, to see this big, almost highlighted white body cruising right below the ocean surface



Photo credits: Above: ANSA, below: Oliver Brechet/Antonio Cano

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Marine Biologist, University of Iceland


A humpback whale in Faxaflói Bay released from a severe entanglement

 Photo credit: Guðlaugur Ottesen Karlsson  -  Icewhale

Photo credit: Guðlaugur Ottesen Karlsson  -  Icewhale

For approximately two months a humpback whale, feeding in Faxaflói Bay, Iceland, has been suffering from a bad entanglement. A fine mashed fishing net had coiled multiple times around the whale‘s tailstock and had already started to cut deep into the whale‘s skin. The fishing net was also wrapped around the whale’s body and threaded through its mouth.

Today, a group of specialists from the International Fund of Animal Welfare (IFAW) teamed up with local whale watching companies and IceWhale representatives, managed miraculously to release the whale from the entanglement after many attempts the last days. The only piece of rope left on the whale will eventually grow out of the skin and, hopefully, only leave a deep scar behind. This individual humpback whale was particularly fortunate and thankfully local authorities responded quickly.



Photo credit: Guðlaugur Ottesen Karlsson  -  Icewhale

Marine debris is accumulating fast in our oceans causing a major threat to a number of different marine species. Huge amounts of consumer plastics, metals, rubber, paper, textiles, derelict fishing gear, vessels, and other lost or discarded items enter the marine environment every day, making marine debris one of the most widespread pollution problems facing the world's oceans and waterways.

Entanglement is a major threat to larger marine animals, especially marine mammals. Entanglement is usually caused by drifting fishing gear, e.g. long lines and fine mashed gillnets. Also, gillnets left unattended within important feeding grounds of marine mammals, are causing major threats to this group of animals around the world. The smaller animals usually drown where they can’t free themselves from the nets, whereas the larger ones become entangled towing the gear behind them, usually ending up with exhaustion and eventually drowning or blood infection.

It is certainly our responsibility to clean up the oceans and acknowledge the harm we do to the marine environment with continual, irresponsible and careless littering into the oceans.


Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Marine biologist and a whale specialist at the University of Iceland


The White Whale - Let's peak a little deeper into the ol'myth

 Photo credit:  John A. DeLaughter, a  Lovecraft eZine  contributor

Photo credit: John A. DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine contributor

“I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.”
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

The young Herman Melville wrote in his now legendary novel about the fierce and powerful, white whale Moby Dick in 1852. Melville was inspired by Captain George Pollard's account of the 1820 sperm whale attach on the whale ship Essex in the South Pacific and by the tales of the ferocious white sperm whale of the S-Pacific called Mocha Dick. 

Whether the boat was really attached and sunk by a whale remains a mystery. In his account of the event, Captain Pollard was to have claimed that the boat had been frequently menaced by whales at night with one incident of a killer whale attach. This behaviour is not commonly witnessed in the wild though there are few incidences of whales breaching out of the water and landing on an unfortunate smaller vessels. If the whale hasn't been harassed, it is unlikely an intentional act since such a stunt could be life threatening to the whale.

Mocha Dick was encountered by many whalers in the early 19th century. When killed in 1838 around 19 harpoons were found in his body. Despite of the number of unpleasant encounters with blood thirsty whalers, tales tell that he was quite docile and sometimes swam alongside ships. But when agitated or attacked, he would respond fiercely and cunningly. When Mocha Dick was finally killed he was seemingly coming to the aid of a female sperm whale whose calf had just been slain by the whalers. 

A contemporary naturalist, Thomas Beale, was working as a surgeon aboard a whale ship. In his 1839 book about the natural history of sperm whales he wrote: "a most timid and inoffensive animal readily endeavouring to escape from the slightest thing which bears an unusual appearance". Beale describes a behaviour more commonly witnessed by sea-farers and scientists today. Of course, sperm whales are not commercially hunted today (commercial whaling was banned in 1986, but a remote Indonesian village is one of the few places still hunting whales using traditional methods) and thus not directly threatened by humans. Only indirectly, such as by shipping, by-catch and entanglement. Therefore, they should be less likely to respond aggressively to non-threatening vessels.

A recent study has shown that sperm whales have a particularly strong long term memory, remembering the interaction history with other whales over very long periods of separation. Therefore, an individual would remember a previous tragic event such as an attack on itself or other group members and could thus respond aggressively when faced again with similar threat. 

Sperm whales are quite the magnificent creatures, for sure ill tempered when threatened but clearly show great affection and devotion to their family members. 

Finally, the whales whitish appearance! Fact or fiction? 

Albinism is actually a very well known phenomenon among whales as among most other animals and even plants. In 2008, a published report stated that 21 albino (or anomalously white)  cetaceans had been reported. These species were e.g. humpback whales, a bottlenose dolphin, sperm whales, and a southern right whale. Since then, more "white-whales" have been added to the list, e.g. a white harbor porpoise off NE-Scotland, a killer whale near Russia’s Kammchatka Peninsula and a humpback whale off N-Norway.

Albinism is due to congenital absence of any pigmentation in the animal. Naturally occurring albinism is quite rare but both parents need to carry the recessive albino allele for the chance of having an albino young.

The cost of albinism for marine mammals may include reduced heat absorption in cold waters, poor camouflage and increased sensitivity to sunlight. Also, albino mammals generally have a poor vision. Despite these costs some albino whales seem to reach adult stages. A white sperm whale killed near the Azores in 1902 was reported to be 27 m (90 ft) and around 100 years old.

 Willow the white humpback whale sighted off Spitsbergen, Svalbard in 2012 . Credit: Barcroft TV

Willow the white humpback whale sighted off Spitsbergen, Svalbard in 2012 . Credit: Barcroft TV

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Marine Biologist and whale specialist at the University of Iceland


Private life of whales: Empathy

The need to protect those that are not capable of doing so themselves is a feeling we humans are quite familiar with; maternal instinct or empathy perhaps. This feeling or need is certainly shared with other animals, including whales. Events from nature have certainly taught us few things about that.

 Image of a bottlenose dolphin with a malformed spine socializing with a group of sperm whales. Photo Credit: Alexander D.M. Wilson/Aquatic Mammals

Image of a bottlenose dolphin with a malformed spine socializing with a group of sperm whales. Photo Credit: Alexander D.M. Wilson/Aquatic Mammals

A group of female sperm whales, sighted off the Azores in the North-Atlantic Ocean, had accepted into their group an adult male bottlenose dolphin which had a rare spinal malformation.  The disabled dolphin couldn’t keep up with his kin but the slower swimming group of sperm whales accepted him into their group. The huge sperm whales treated the dolphin as another sperm whale member, both nuzzling him and accepting his attempts for physical contact.

 Image showing mother right whale, her calf and another adopted calf (order of calves is not known) is courtesy of Mogens Trolle at the Dyer Island Whale and Dolphin Project and is protected by copyright laws

Image showing mother right whale, her calf and another adopted calf (order of calves is not known) is courtesy of Mogens Trolle at the Dyer Island Whale and Dolphin Project and is protected by copyright laws

A female right whale mother sighted off the waters of South Africa adopted an orphan right whale calf though she was already caring for her own calf. This is a major risk for her since mothering a single calf is a huge task for a lone baleen whale mother and demands considerable energy. The mother was in a good body condition and seemingly managed to rare the two suckling calves which quickly bonded and played together as seen by other mammal siblings.

Pass on our genes and ensure the survival of the next generation is what live is fundamentally about. Thankfully, there is a bit more to life than only that! 

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Marine biologist and a whale specialist at the University of Iceland


Private life of whales: Motherhood

 A group of killer whales ( Orcinus orca)  swimming off SW-Iceland

A group of killer whales (Orcinus orca) swimming off SW-Iceland

Cetaceans are anything but monogamous, but a long-term paring of a male and a female has never been reported for these animals, no more than among other marine mammals. Consequently, the mother is left with the upbringing of her young, a role she tend to with a complete devotion.

Baleen whales, such as minke, fin, blue and humpback whales, lead a relatively solo lifestyle and usually do not rely on the assistance of others. Therefore, the baleen whale mothers are left completely alone with caring and protecting their young calves. On the other hand, toothed whales have learned that the social life is the most secure way. Together, they increase their chances of hunting successfully and of rearing and caring for their young. The solo lifestyle has, however, demanded larger body sizes. As a result, the largest animal ever have roamed the earth is a female blue whale, but baleen whale females usually grow to be larger and heavier than the males. That gives them an advantage in nursing and protecting a young calf on their own.

The toothed whale mothers, such as dolphins and sperm whales, are no less devoted in the upbringing of their young. However, they usually do not take on that job alone. They are assisted by other females sharing the same group. Sometimes these are unrelated animals that have formed a lifelong alliance or family members such as sisters, aunts, grandmothers and cousins. 

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Marine biologist and a whale specialist at the University of Iceland


A fin whale beached in Breiðafjörður, W-Iceland

 A 17 m long fin whale beached at Stakksey at Stykkishólmur, W-Iceland. Photo Credit:  Menja von Schmalensee  -  Náttúrustofa Vesturlands

A 17 m long fin whale beached at Stakksey at Stykkishólmur, W-Iceland. Photo Credit: Menja von Schmalensee  -  Náttúrustofa Vesturlands

Last Saturday, the 20th of June, a 17 m (55 feet) long fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) was found stranded within the harbour area of Stykkishólmur. Stykkishólmur is a beautiful town at Breiðafjörður and is located at the northerly end of Snæfellsnes peninsula. Though Breiðafjörður hosts a rich ecosystem and is a home to various creatures, large whales such as fin whales are not common visitors within the fiord.  

The cause of death is not known and the animal bore no clear injuries that could have led to its death. The whale was weak for some unknown reason and evidently beached itself. It is not known if the animal intentionally tried to swim on land. However, it is more likely that the whale had been seeking a shelter in calmer and shallower waters due to bad body condition, or possibly to avoid predation from killer whales.

The West-Iceland Centre of Natural History (Náttúrustofa Vesturlands) took tissue samples from the animal which later could reveal more about the whale’s condition. The gender is not known since the whale was lying on its abdomen and the genital area could not be investigated. Given the whale’s size it was very likely mature, but fully grown fin whales reach about 22 m (72 feet) in length.

The whale’s body was towed back to the sea where it was allowed to sink down to the bottom in a relatively deep area in Breiðafjörður. It is a sad ending for this magnificent creature, but there will surely be a feast for various vertebrates and invertebrates living in Breiðafjörður the next months or even years to come.

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Marine biologist and a whale specialist at the University of Iceland

Whales are in rhythm with nature

Whales have roamed the oceans for millions of years. In fact, the two living suborders of whales, i.e. Mysticetes (baleen whales) and Odontocetes (toothed whales), have existed for approximately 20 million years. The evolution of evolving such enormous bodies has required plentiful food resources which the oceans have certainly had to offer. Only in recent decades have whales been faced with such a ferocious competitor for food resources as human fishing fleets.

A common misconception is that the whales, in particular the large ones, eat too much of the available resources. While whales certainly eat much their large bodies would not have been able to evolve if it were “too much”. The smaller ones would have survived and multiplied while the big ones would have vanished.

All whales, small and large, necessarily contribute to the ecosystem in which they live. They must, otherwise their future wouldn’t be bright.

But how so?

Whales, like other organisms, feed on other organisms transforming them into a new type of biomass, namely whale tissue (e.g. blubber, muscles, bones, connective tissue etc.) and benefits the whale while it lives. After the whale dies the entire biomass is returned back into the food web via decomposers as well as carnivores and other scavengers.

In shallow waters the whale carcass is consumed quite quickly by various animals and bacteria. In deeper waters, around or below a depth of 2000 m (6600 ft), a whale carcass is called a “whale fall”. Under such conditions the carcass will create a complex and localized ecosystem, benefiting deep-water organisms for decades.

What about when they live and breathe?

Whales contribute to the food web which they belong to throughout their lives for as long as they eat they will poop! No different from the cattle that return nutrients back to the grass with their feces while ruminating peacefully through their grass planes, whales cultivate the upper layers of the sea with vital nutrients from their feces. But not only do they recycle nutrients, they also bring nutrients up to the upper layers; a phenomena called the Whale Pump.

All whales (i.e. whales, dolphins and porpoises) must dive to find and catch prey, often reaching great depths. When a whale reaches the surface again to breathe they generally defecate large swarms and sometimes chunks of nutritious feces. Photosynthesizing phytoplankton, which can only survive in the upper sunlit layers of the ocean (the euphotic zone), needs essential nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and iron to multiply and produce organic material through photosynthesis. Large concentrations of these nutrients, particularly nitrogen and iron, are found in the whale feces. 

Phytoplankton are small single celled organisms that live in salt and fresh waters. They are the bases of the ocean and freshwater food chains just as plants are on land. They produce oxygen as a byproduct when converting inorganic material into organic (i.e. sugars), both of which are vital for all animals.

Recent study has shown the importance of whale feces to sustain local krill populations in the Antarctic; an important reminder that whales have evolved according to their environment. These giants are not off beat with nature, they live in harmony with it!       

  The Whale Pump.  In the common concept of the biological pump, zooplankton feed in the euphotic zone and export nutrients via sinking fecal pellets, and vertical migration. Fish typically release nutrients at the same depth at which they feed. Excretion for marine mammals, tethered to the surface for respiration, is expected to be shallower in the water column than where they feed.  Credit: Peter Roopnarine, Joe Roman, James J. McCarthy. The Whale Pump: Marine Mammals Enhance Primary Productivity in a Coastal Basin. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (10): e13255 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013255

The Whale Pump. In the common concept of the biological pump, zooplankton feed in the euphotic zone and export nutrients via sinking fecal pellets, and vertical migration. Fish typically release nutrients at the same depth at which they feed. Excretion for marine mammals, tethered to the surface for respiration, is expected to be shallower in the water column than where they feed. Credit: Peter Roopnarine, Joe Roman, James J. McCarthy. The Whale Pump: Marine Mammals Enhance Primary Productivity in a Coastal Basin. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (10): e13255 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013255

Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir

Marine Biologist and a whale specialist at the University of Iceland

Edits by Martin Swift


Sperm whales sleep vertically

In recent years scientist have discovered sperm whales often sleep in pods, vertically! Imagine coming across a pod of whales laying spookily still in the middle of the ocean. The are know to sleep for 10- 15 minutes while slowly floating back to surface head first from the depths. This fun fact makes sperm whales one of the most bizarre sleepers in the animal kingdom.

Blowholes don't blow water

A whale's blowhole is just like our nose. Whales use it to breathe and to produce a loud trumpet sound above water. Contrary to common belief, whales don't squirt water out of their blowholes intentionally. When a whale surfaces it releases the air from within, which combines with mucus and water as it exits the spout looking very much like a fountain.