The sea off the coast of Oman has a wealth of underwater treasures. The pristine blue waters offer sanctuary to a multitude of marine life, mind-boggling in their diversity; from the gaily coloured clown fish to the slowly drifting turtles. The most amazing residents however, are the Arabian Sea Humpback Whales. Oman’s humpback whales are known to be the only ones of their kind in the world not to migrate, but rather to breed and feed in the same geographic area.
Also, interestingly, genetic evidence shows the population to be no longer in breeding contact with any other humpback whale populations in the Indian Ocean region. This makes them truly Arabian whales!
Research has revealed that humpback whales found in the Arabian Sea region are unique with a very distinct genetic code, clearly different from other humpback whale populations across the world. Studies suggest that they have remained separate from other humpback whale populations for perhaps 70,000 years making them the most isolated whale population on earth, extremely unusual in a species famed for long distance migrations.
Though research has been undertaken by The Environment Society of Oman and other agencies to study these magnificent ‘giants of the sea’, there is still a lot of mystery that surrounds these enigmatic creatures. While much remains unknown, what we do know is fascinating. Arabian Sea Humpback Whales can reach up to 50-feet long and weigh as much as 50 tons. That’s about a ton per square foot, which roughly equals the weight of 8 African elephants. A humpback whale’s heart can reach up to 440-pounds in weight, the equivalent of 3 grown men.
But in spite of their rather large size, they are docile and amiable. Arabian Sea Humpback Whales are curious about their environment and will sometimes approach boats and divers to ‘check them out’. They can on occasion put up a spectacular display of aquatic acrobatics that can leave audiences enthralled. These enormous creatures can effortlessly launch themselves out of the water and twirl elegantly in the air before diving back into the sea with a grand splash. In fact, the humpback gets its name from the way it arches its back before diving back into the sea. Called breaching, this graceful act is sometimes used as play or to dislodge parasites or even to communicate with other whales in the vicinity.
They have also been observed spy-hopping, lifting their head and chest vertically out of the water, as if spying on what is happening outside the sea. Another captivating behaviour is blowing a column of water into the air as they surface to breathe. This water spout sometimes reaches as high as 20-feet and can be heard as far as 800 meters away
The Arabian Sea Humpback Whales are multi-talented. Apart from their acrobatics, they are also musical geniuses. They produce hauntingly beautiful ‘songs’ to communicate with each other and their songs can often be heard over 30 kilometres away. While both male and female whales communicate using grunts, barks, and groans, only the male sings. The song is the same for all whales within a single group, but it evolves over time and is different from that of other whale pods. However, research undertaken by the Environment Society of Oman has revealed that unlike humpback whale song around the world, which change progressively each year, the song of Arabian Sea Humpbacks off Oman’s coast has changed very little over the years, in fact remaining virtually the same.
Unfortunately, global warming and threats from human activity are pushing this rare group of whales towards extinction at an alarming rate. Threats like entanglement in fishing nets, ship strikes, pollution and high noise levels are making the survival of the Arabian Sea Humpback Whale difficult. The Environment Society of Oman, in collaboration with regional and international entities such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Arabian Sea Whale Network, is working tirelessly to ensure that the waters off the coast of Oman continues to be a safe place for the now critically endangered species.
Member nations of the Arabian Sea Whale Network, including Oman are implementing photo-identification, genetic, acoustic, and satellite tagging studies and research of Arabian Sea Humpback Whales, and using results to create strategies and engage the public in whale conservation. They are working with government and industry stakeholders to address the risk of ship strike and to ensure that offshore seismic surveys adhere to measures to minimize disturbance to whales. They also undertake community initiatives to educate people about how they can contribute towards creating a safe environment for these amazing creatures.
It will be a sad day for our world if we, in spite of all the scientific and technological knowledge at our fingertips, are unable to save the beautiful Arabian Sea Humpback Whales from extinction. The thrill and privilege of seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat is something that is hard to put into words. We can only hope and work towards ensuring that our future generations are not robbed of this incredible experience.