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Migration redefined? Seasonality, movements and group composition of humpback whales <i>Megaptera novaeangliae</i> off the west coast of South Africa

J Barendse
PB Best
M Thornton
C Pomilla
I Carvalho
HC Rosenbaum


The migration of Southern Hemisphere humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae between their feeding and breeding areas has thus far been considered a highly predictable and seasonal event. However, previous observations on the humpbacks that pass through the nearshore waters of the west coast of South Africa have revealed deviations from the behaviour and seasonality expected during a typical migration. This ‘anomaly’ is hypothesised to be associated with prey availability in the region. Shore-based observations between July 2001 and February 2003 from North Head, Saldanha Bay, in the Western Cape province, yielded relative abundances that again did not support a classical migration pattern, with the highest sighting rates from mid-spring through summer. Movement parameters (actual swimming speed, direction and linearity) of humpback groups tracked by theodolite showed mid-spring to be a turning point in their behaviour, after which we observed a significant reduction in actual swimming speed, an increase in ‘non-directional’ movement, and a distribution farther from shore than in other seasons. Additional data on group composition and sex collected between 1993 and 2008 showed a significantly female-biased sex ratio during mid-spring, the first such recorded for any region. Direct observation of feeding on crustacean prey during spring and summer further supports the notion that humpbacks may have more flexible foraging habits than previously appreciated, and that the southern Benguela upwelling region may function as an important feeding area for these whales.

Keywords: Benguela upwelling; Breeding Stock B; feeding; group composition; humpback whale; migration; Pythagoras software; seasonality; sex ratios; shore-based survey; South Atlantic; theodolite tracking

African Journal of Marine Science 2010, 32(1): 1–22