Every year – at around this time – Fiji is graced by the arrival of humpback whales. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are migratory species which spend 4-5 months every year in tropical locations such as the Fiji Islands for the purposes of calving and breeding. Feeding does not occur in these warm waters, but rather during November to April at the other end of their migratory pathway in the cold, Antarctic waters that are rich with their favourite food item, krill.

Humpbacks that migrate to Fiji are typically found in waters of less than 200m in close proximity to island groups. The highest number of sightings occur within the Lomaiviti group of islands such as Gau, Wakaya, and Ovalau. However, the number of humpbacks coming to Fiji these days is significantly less than was the case about 70 years ago. In 2010 – 2012 land-based surveys from Levuka and Makogai Islands counted an average of between 5 – 20 whales per week swimming in the waters close to these islands. These small counts are in stark contrast to records of up to 150 individuals per week that were seen in the late 1950’s from these same locations.

What caused these massive declines? One simple answer. Whaling. More than 200,000 humpback whales were killed during commercial whaling operations in the Southern Hemisphere between 1904 and 1973. Of further detriment was the fact that many of these takes occurred over a short time period and took place on the probable migration route and feeding grounds of Fiji humpback whales. The dramatic difference between historical numbers and present day sightings of humpback whales is part of the reason that Oceania is one of only two places in the world in which this species is considered Endangered.

There are signs of hope though. Researchers have consistently been noting the presence of new calves during the breeding season in Fiji for at least the last 5 years. Although the numbers are small this does signal a possible increase in birth rates for this species. In addition, it confirms that Fiji waters do indeed provide critical habitat for breeding of this Endangered animal. A relative hotspot of calving has been identified within the Vatu-i-Ra seascape.

Such locations are critical for the potential recovery of humpback whales in Fijian waters. Furthermore, growing commitment from the Fiji government to develop and implement a national whale and dolphin action plan to underpin the Fiji Whale Sanctuary is another step in the right direction for this enigmatic and important species.

Words and image by Dr. Cara Miller.