One of the best places in the world to see humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) is the area between the island of Ste. Marie and the mainland of Madagascar. Between the months of July and September you can find around 3.000 whales in those breeding grounds, where they also give birth to their young.
Since it is also a port of entry in Madagascar it was our first stop. The people on the island are living from the whale-watching tourists which you can see in the restaurants, the many souvenirs and even in the supermarket. The local vegetable and fruit market has everything you need and we were impressed by the quality of their products. Whoever wants and especially has the courage to eat meat can buy really fresh stuff here, including the skin and the head of those animals.
Right away we have met Sophie, the head of “cetamada”. This is an organization which is engaged in whale protection, research, ecotourism and especially in the information and education of the locals. For example they organize weekly trips for the children to learn more about the ocean and the animals in it. The are financed by some funds as well as money from local hotels, restaurants and donations from tourists (www.cetamada.org – in french).
We took a lot of time looking for whales and always found some. One time we were especially lucky since we were next to a group, which was having fun for hours. From far away we could already see their big flippers waving in the air and slapping on the surface of the water – called flipper-slapping. For this they turn on their side and lift one or both of their flippers in the air. The genus name Megaptera or “big wing” comes from those big flippers, which are a third as long as the whale itself. Often we also observed the so called “lobtailing”, where they lift their whole fin out of the water and wave it around. The underside of the fin is used in the so called photo-ID, because the pattern is like a fingerprint and different in each whale. Furthermore they did “spyhopping”, which means they lift their head out of the water to look around. The most impressive thing is definitely the so called “breaching”. Most of the whale or even the whole whale lifts out of the water and falls back with a big splash. The scientists only can guess why they are doing this. Maybe to get rid of parasites or just for fun. We think it is the latter and were fascinated by their huge jumps.
Back at the anchorage we suddenly heard funny noises underwater in our cabin at night. So we activated our hydrophone and we knew: they are singing! The male humpback whales are famous for their songs at the breeding grounds. Those are the longest and most complex songs in the whole animal kingdom and still nobody knows, why they are doing this. At the moment there are two theories: First to impress and attract the females and second, to get an idea about their surroundings and to know where the other whales are. Humpback whales of a certain geographic area apparently sing the same song. But those songs change over time. The oddest thing is that nobody knows how they produce those tones. They don't have vocal cords like us and the only existing theory is, that they produce their notes somewhere inside the cavity of the head.
On our last day in Ste. Marie we had our most spectacular encounter. From far away we were able to identify a forest of blows (when they exhale it is called blow), which were coming closer very fast. It was a group of 10-12 humpback whales, swimming close together – touching each other all the time – in a fast tempo towards the south. They moved in a rush like a giant, roaring wave and passed right next to our boat. We think they already started moving towards their feeding grounds in Antarctic waters. We will remember this image for a long time to come.