Why Do Whales Migrate?


Whales migrate great distances, and this behavior caught my attention. In this article, we look at why they migrate and their motives for migrating every season.  

Migration is the seasonal movement of animals from one place to another. Whales follow the migration of their usual food and to find favorable breeding grounds.  

There are over 80 species of whales, and each has its own movement pattern. Some whales travel long distances during migration that can amount to thousands of miles.

I wanted to write this article to give you the answers to questions you may have about whales migrating.

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Gray whale

Why Do Whales Migrate?

Primarily, the reason whales migrate is to search for a plentiful supply of food. During the warm seasons, whales migrate to colder waters where there is a plentiful food source. When the weather changes and the water becomes colder, whales have to find another location.  

Once the water has become colder, food becomes more scarce, so whales have to migrate to warmer waters where there is a better supply. Whales migrate towards the poles in the summer and towards the equator’s more tropical waters in the winter.

Whales also migrate to reproduce. Whales take advantage of the weather, migrating to colder water to reproduce. Whales have specific locations where they gather for reproducing.

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Whales migrate between feeding and mating seasons. They tend to migrate towards cooler waters during the warmer summer months to stock up on food and replenish their fat supply before the cold temperatures come around once more.

Whales migrate to a familiar place where mating takes place, and once their mating season ends, each whale will then leave that area. 

The movement of the whale is also a result of the migration of their prey. Whales will follow the migration patterns of their prey. Whales will travel wherever their prey migrates so that they can continue their journey without having to worry about finding a fresh source of food.

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Does Different Species Migrate at the Same Time?

A whale’s migration time, distance, and destination differ from one species of whale to another. The main factor for this is the gestation period’s time. This impacts when, where, and if they migrate to new locations during certain times of the year. 

Whales will not migrate long distances to mate or give birth to calves as they can mate at any time of the year. The difference in the gestation period among different whale species results in different species migrating at separate times.

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Killer whales migrate but do not have a specific breeding ground. Orcas move to different areas to give birth. The gestation period of a killer whale is between 15-18 months. As the gestation period is so long, this would overlap with their feeding season. Due to this, orcas will give birth at their feeding grounds.

The narwhal and the beluga whale have time to migrate to a new ground to give birth. They have a gestation period that exceeds the 11-12 months cycle of some other whale species.

With this gestation period, both the narwhal and beluga have time to travel from one area to another. Neither of these species migrates over vast distances from cold weather to tropical environments the way other whales do.

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Whale

Blue whales and humpback whales have a similar gestation period of 11-12 months. This allows them to give birth in the same warm areas where they also mate. They become pregnant in the same area that they give birth, almost a year later.

These migratory patterns give their newborn calves a warm and secure environment. They can have their calves in the same area each year, making it easier than dealing with births being scattered throughout their feeding grounds.

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Where Do Whales Migrate?

In general, whales migrate towards the colder poles in the summer and towards the winter months’ equator’s tropical waters. This migratory pattern helps the whales take advantage of the colder waters allowing them more food in the summer.

As the food sources in those areas run out, the whales will migrate to warmer waters to give birth to their calves.

The humpback whale is known to undertake an annual migration from their summer feeding grounds at high latitudes. They then move to their winter breeding grounds in subtropical and tropical waters.

Humpback whales will feed in Alaska during the summer before moving over to Hawaii’s warmer climates in the winter months.

Click here to find out the best places to see whales in North America

Whales migrate north to warmer tropical breeding grounds, and there are several reasons for this. By moving to a lower latitude, the risk of attack on the young calves by killer whales is lower.

Calm waters further north also provide a more tranquil environment for calves to swim in, using less energy. Calm shallow waters also have a reduced predation risk from other predators. There is also a benefit to a calves thermoregulation in warmer water.

The gray whale is another whale species that migrate north each spring. They feast on plentiful food sources by migrating North, growing fast in the Arctic’s rich feeding waters.

Gray whales also migrate south each fall to mate and give birth in lagoons on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. They can be seen following this migration pattern every year of their long lives.

Blue whales that are in the Pacific sea migrate from California down to the warmer weather of Mexico and Costa Rica.

North Atlantic right whales move between the cold waters off Northeastern U.S. and Canada to the warmer waters of Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. 

If you are going on a whale-watching trip then it is best to be prepared.  Find out more in this article

Which Whale Has The Longest Migration?

The gray whale is considered to have the longest migration of any marine mammal. The gray whale travels 10,000-12,000 miles on a round trip between their breeding grounds off Baja California to their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas off Alaska.

Gray whale

The longest whale migration on record is a gray whale, which broke the marine mammal migration record. The whale traveled from Russia to Mexico and back again. This was measured as a distance of 13.988 miles in just 172 days. 

The second-longest ever migration was by a humpback whale. The whale was sighted off the Antarctic Peninsula in April 1986 and then sighted again off Colombia in August 1986. It was estimated to have traveled over 5,100 miles. 

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Whales migrate due to changes in the seasons. The changes in season affect the food that whales need. The migration pattern of the food that a whale eats can play a huge part in where the whale migrates.

Whales also migrate due to reproduction. Whales need a favorable environment to give birth and help the calf survive through the first few months. 

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References

Bernhard Grzimek, Schlager, N., Olendorf, D. and American (2003). Grzimek’s animal life encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale.

Carwardine, M. (2010). Whales, dolphins, and porpoises. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Carwardine, M. (2017). Mark Carwardine’s guide to whale watching in North America : USA, Canada, Mexico, where to go, what to see. London: Bloomsbury.

Hadoram Shirihai, Jarrett, B., Graeme Cresswell and Kirwan, G.M. (2019). Whales, dolphins, and seals : a field guide to the marine mammals of the world. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife.

Martin, T. (1990). The illustrated encyclopedia of whales and dolphins. Hodder.

Nowak, R.M., and Walker, E.P. (1991). Walker’s mammals of the world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B.G., and J  G  M Thewissen (2002). Encyclopedia of marine mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Richard John Harrison and Bryden, M.M. (1990). Whales, dolphins, and porpoises. London: Merehurst.

Williams, H. (1988). Whale nation. London: Cape.

Wilson, D.E. (1999). The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Inst. Press.

May, J. (1990). The Greenpeace book of dolphins. London: Century.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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