This year we have been dedicating each month to a particular cetacean species - bringing you blogs from all over the world for a deeper and better look at our 'Species of the Month'. However, for the Holidays, we thought we’d get a bit more specific and rather than highlighting a species, we are going to highlight some very special individuals- our adoptable whales! And who better to start with than the first humpback whale ever named - Salt!
Salt was named because it looks like someone sprinkled salt on her dorsal fin. She was one of the first individual whales studied by researchers based on her unique natural markings. A technique researchers continue to use to track individual animals over the course of their lives, and thus also be able to track generations.
Since 1975, Salt has been seen every year off the coast of Massachusetts and her history is tied to the whale watching industry. She was given her name by Aaron Avellar, a captain and a founder of the Dolphin Fleet whale watching company. Aaron's dad Al Avellar, a fishing captain, noticed that his fishing passengers would stop and watch whales whenever they were sighted, leading to the beginnings of East Cost whale watching. Because of this connection the Avellar family, Chad Avellar, Aaron’s son, has been passed on the privilege of naming Salt's calves.... and there are a lot of them.
Here's her family tree.
Most of Salt’s calves have names either based on some derivation of Salt or another condiment (Aaron was a condiment connoisseur!). In fact only one of Salt’s calves was not named with a form of salt or a condiment- Thalassa. Thalassa was a primordial sea goddess and the mother of all the fishes in the sea; quite fitting as Thalassa the humpback has had seven calves of her own so far, making Salt a grandmother many times over. Thalassa is the calf of Salt that we know has gone on to reproduce. We were fortunate to see Thalassa feeding on our research cruise last month.
Some of Salt’s calves are almost as famous as she is. Her first calf, Crystal, was born in 1980. There is a book written about him called, Crystal: The Story of a Real Baby Whale. And an exact replica of her second calf, Halos, hangs inside the New England Aquarium for all to see.
Although we do not know Salt’s exact age because we never saw her as a calf or juvenile, we do know a lot about her because of the 34 years of data collected aboard whale watching vessels. Another wonderful benefit of whale watching. We know that she has been documented in the breeding grounds of Dominican Republic, and she has had 12 calves, and that she’s a grandmother.
At one time we thought Salt was providing us some insight as to when baleen whales become senescent (reach menopause and stop reproducing). If you look back on the family tree you’ll see Salt had a new calf every other year for a decade ending with the birth of Salsa in 1991. For the next seven years we say Salt every year, but each year she did not have a calf with her. No one knows if baleen whales get to an age where they stop bearing calves and perhaps Salt was about to help us find out. But in 1998 she returned with a calf and the question of senescence remains unanswered. She continued to have six more calves on her every-other-year schedule, exactly like before her seven year hiatus.
Salt also teaches us a lot about associations. We consider the longest association between baleen whales to be between mothers and calves – and that’s not even a full year. When we see other humpbacks hanging out together we generally consider those association to be fluctuating and transient - lasting an hour, or day, or week. However, Salt and Cardhu (another adult female) have a history of hanging out together, it seems particularly when Salt is pregnant. These extremely long lasting relationships, also known as associations, we thought, were uncommon among baleen whales. Yet they have been documented in other populations of humpbacks as well.
A few other things that generally you can count of if you see Salt is that she’s not going to be acrobatic – we hardly ever see her breach or tail breach. Unless of course, she is with a calf, then there’s a slight chance of seeing her breach or flipper slap- perhaps teaching her calf the ways of the world. She seems to be the Queen Bee of the group as well, and And if she’s in a group feeding, she is typically the first to dive and resurface – with the rest of the group following her lead.
While we still have many unanswered questions about the culture and life history of humpback whales, Salt has certainly been a great teacher- and we look forward to learning more from her for many years to come. You can help by adopting Salt.