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Why Do Whales Migrate?

On a recent whale-watching trip, I talked to the guide about why they migrate. This article examines why they migrate and their motives for migrating every season.  

Migration is the seasonal movement of animals from one place to another. Whales migrate for two reasons; to follow the migration of food and find suitable breeding grounds.  

There are over 80 species of whales, and each has its migration pattern. Some whales travel thousands of miles to find suitable food and breeding grounds.

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Gray whale

Why Do Whales Migrate?

Whales migrate for two reasons. Whales migrate to search for a plentiful supply of food and to find suitable breeding grounds. During the warm seasons, whales migrate to colder waters with a good food source. Whales must find another location when the weather changes and the water cools.  

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

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

Whales migrate between feeding and breeding seasons. They tend to migrate towards warmer waters during summer to feed and replenish their fat supply before the cold temperatures increase.

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

Whales often swim close to the shore. Find out why here

Do Different Whales 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 breed at any time of the year. The difference in the gestation period among different whale species results in other species migrating simultaneously.

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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 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 a gestation period that exceeds some other whale species’ 11-12 months cycle. With this gestation period, the narwhal and beluga have time to travel from one area to another. Neither the beluga nor narwhal migrates over vast distances from cold weather to tropical environments like other whales.

New York is fantastic to watch whales from shore or out at sea.  You can find out the best places in this article I wrote.

Blue 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 mate, giving birth in the same place as they became pregnant.

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

Humpback whales are enormous, but they do have predators.  Find out what attacks them here.

Where Do Whales Migrate?

Whales migrate towards the colder poles in the summer and the equator in the winter. 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, whales migrate to warmer waters to give birth to their calves.

The humpback whale undertakes 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 typically feed in Alaska during the summer before moving 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 young calves by predators such as killer whales is lower. Clear, shallow waters also have a reduced predation risk from other predators.

Calm waters further north also provide a better environment for calves to swim in, as they use less energy and do not need to use energy to keep themselves warm.

The gray whale is another whale species that migrate north each spring. They feast on 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.

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

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

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

Gray whale

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.

The longest whale migration 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. 

Do whales drink seawater?  Find out in this article I wrote

References

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“The Great Whales: Giants of the Deep” by Phil Clapham

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“The Behavioral Ecology of Whales and Dolphins” by Ingrid Visser

“Migrations of Marine Mammals: A synthesis of the current state of knowledge” by D.C.G. Muir, S.L. Swartz, J.E. Reynolds III

“The Evolutionary Biology of Whales and Dolphins” by Mark D. Uhen

“Whale Watching: Sustainable Tourism and Ecological Management” by Erich Hoyt

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