First insights on spatial and temporal distribution patterns of humpback whales in the breeding ground at Sainte Marie Channel, Madagascar
The Sainte Marie Channel on the northeast coast of Madagascar is an important breeding ground for humpback whales; the first observation of birth was documented there, yet it has never been investigated for phenology and habitat use of humpback whales. The present study was aimed at examining temporal and spatial distribution patterns and the encounter rate of different social groups of humpback whales during the breeding season. We used a large set of opportunistic sightings data collected from whale-watching boats. A total of 3 247 sightings were collected during 897 whale-watching trips conducted between June and September from 2009 to 2013. Our study complements previous information on the seasonal presence of humpback whale social groups by demonstrating a persistent and well-structured temporal pattern in the succession of the different groups. Over the different years of the study period, groups without calves consistently dominated the first 30 days of the breeding season, followed by an increase in groups with calves. Interannual differences were observed in the encounter rates, with significantly higher global encounter rates in 2009, 2011 and 2013 (2.2, 2.3 and 2.3 sightings h–1, respectively), and likewise for the mean encounter rates for groups with calves. In contrast, the encounter rate of groups without calves was similar over the study period. Although our study area exhibits a narrow configuration and poorly contrasting physiographic features due to its restricted spatial extent, we report a spatially segregated pattern of humpback whale social groups in the Sainte Marie Channel. A general linear model showed that groups with calves were influenced by water depth and distance from shore, being observed mostly in shallow waters (to 20m depth) and close to the coastline (6 km). Our findings will be useful for the development of strategic sustained management plans by providing baseline information on humpback whale distribution at an important but poorly documented breeding site.
Keywords: habitat use, Indian Ocean, Megaptera novaeangliae, phenology, seasonality pattern, social groups