Staying on course, humpback whale style

I came across an interesting story from New Zealand this morning on the CBC’s website. Researchers have determined that humpback whales swim for as many as 2,000 kilometers on nearly a straight course. Imagine trying to swim in a straight course on a open body of water like a lake or the ocean as you are being buffeted by waves, tides, or currents. Good luck with that.

According to environmental scientist, Travis Horton of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand;

“They maintain remarkably straight movements for weeks across thousands of kilometres of oceans.”

Scientists believe the humpback whales have some type of internal compass that allows them to stay on such a direct course without wavering or being thrown off by powerful currents.

Horton and colleagues used satellite tracking technology to follow 16 humpback whales as they migrated from locations off the east coast of Brazil, the Cook Islands and New Caledonia.

They found the whales swam over 6,000 kilometres south towards Antarctic waters, in a series of straight lines, ranging from 100 to 2,000 kilometres long.

“They go in such straight lines that their directions don’t go off course by more than a single degree azimuth,” says Horton.

“That’s hard to do even in a plane or a boat with modern technology.”

He says the sun and magnetic field shift by several degrees more than the course set by the whales, so in themselves cannot explain these straight lines.

“The position of the sun and the magnetic field is highly variable, but the whales somehow maintain a constant course.”

Horton says it is possible that whales are using both solar and magnetic information to navigate.

Hopefully, scientists will be able to determine exactly how the humpback whales accomplish this remarkable feat. Once that discovery occurs, it may bring about amazing technological advances in marine navigation. Just another way that nature helps educate humans and another great reason to celebrate Earth Week.

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