Humpback Whales

Once hunted almost to the brink of extinction, humpback whales (megaptera novaeangliae) are a species of baleen whale, one of the larger rorqual species ranging in size from 39 to 52-feet long and weighing up to 79,000-lbs.

Before the 1966 moratorium on whaling, its population fell by an estimated 90%, but during the last half a century it has made a dramatic recovery and is among the favourite quarries for whale-watching expeditions all round the globe, as it likes to indulge in acrobatic dsplays of tail and pectoral fin slapping and ‘breaching’ out of the water. To see one of these monsters of the deep breaching is truly an awesome sight.

Humpbacks are sometimes spotted off the Pembrokeshire coast during their 16,000 mile annual migratory journeys from polar waters to tropical or sub-tropical regions. They are frequently seen from ferry boats and also from cruise ships, passengers particularly watching out for them in the Bay of Biscay.

The town of Milford Haven owes its very existence to the whaling industry as it was founded just over 200 years ago to accommodate loyalist Quaker whaling families from Nantucket Island, who were anxious to escape the aftermath of the American War of Independence. It was a ‘proprietary town’ founded by Sir William Hamilton, husband of Nelson’s inamorata Emma, who had property locally, and the Quakers, whose presence is still commemorated in street names such as Nantucket Avenue, Starbuck Road, Barlow Street, Warwick Road and Hamilton Terrace, moved their base there in 1798. But the whaling industry was beset by problems, which included the loss of ships during the war with France, and whaling became a thing of the past in Pembrokeshire before 1820, the general fishing industry taking over the role of Milford Haven’s staple industry. The Quakers’ main quarry was the Sperm Whale, but other large whales were taken, the Quakers voyaging for a year at a time to distant waters as far afield as the Falklands and the Cape of Good Hope.

There are now an estimated 80,000 humpbacks worldwide, and these huge creatures feed only in summer time in polar waters, migrating south in winter when they fast, living on their fat reserves, until they reach tropical and sub-tropical waters to breed. They feed mainly on small crustaceans called krill and small fish, and the species was first identified in 1781, around the time the Quakers were leaving Nantucket. Their Latin name ‘novaeangliae’ stems from the fact that they were first identified off the coast of New England, where they were numerous. They can be easily identified by their stocky body and obvious hump and the wavy trailing edges of the large flukes. The long black and white tail fin, measuring up to a third of their body length, and the extra-long pectoral fins, have unique patterns which make it easy for experts to identify individuals. The pectoral fins are proportionally the longest of any cetacean, and enhance the humpback’s manouevrability.

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