The Namibian Dolphin Project | Humpback Whale

Species Profiles

Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae

Humpback whales migrating past the Namibian coast are on their way between feeding grounds in the Antarctic and breeding grounds off West Africa. Despite being one of the most studied large whales in the region, we still don’t fully understand the population structure of this once over-hunted species. Observations from Namibia may help to elucidate these patterns.

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Humpback whales migrate past the Namibian coast seasonally between their feeding grounds in the Antarctic and breeding grounds off western Africa.  Although one of the most well studied of the baleen whales thanks to their global distribution, ease of identification and fascinating songs, there is much that we don’t know about this species.

The humpback whales found on the west side of Africa are referred to as Breeding Stock B (BSB) by the International Whaling Commission.  This population is currently split into two subpopulations divided into stock B1 (northern) and B2 (southern) based on patterns of population recovery in historical whaling data and recent findings of genetic differentiation between animals sampled off Gabon and west South Africa (WSA) (Rosenbaum et al 2009, IWC 2007).  The border between the B1 and B2 subpopulations has been defined as roughly the Angola – Benguela Front in southern Angola but there is limited data to support this division and the existence of these two discrete breeding stocks has recently been questioned (Best and Allison, 2010).  Genetic and photographic matches of individuals have been made between South Africa and Gabon (where the vast majority of research on this population has concentrated to date), however there are clear genetic differences between these populations and evidence that the animals seen off west South Africa are in fact a sub-population which is feeding in the upwelling system there during summer months (instead of being in the Antarctic as is ‘expected’).

Information on the identity and genetic make up of humpback whales passing through Namibian waters will help us to understand the population structure of BSB, which has important implications for estimating the population structure, size and recovery rates of these animals in the region.

 

Evidence from historic whaling catches suggests that the Namibia coast acts as a migration corridor with catches peaking in June (northwards migration) and September (southwards migration). Animals passing through Namibian waters should be members of either