Humpback whales – Madagascar – CetaMada – Reportage 02

March 28th, 2015

A world of assumptions.

“The world of cetacean is a world of hypothesis.” Valerie Collin, Vice President of IUCN France, General Secretary of Noé Conservation and founding member of CETAMADA, describes the state of research on marine mammals in this way, especially when it comes to the humpback whale. Scientists issue new hypothesis raising new questions that elicit new hypothesis. “The ripple effect,” as she calls it.


Photo: Anjara Saloma, biologist and leader of CETAMADA scientific program, is about to place an acousonde onto a calf.


Of course, the animal’s anatomy is known from examined dissections of stranded or fished whales. But its behaviour raises endless questions. Why do humpback whales jump? Why do they sing? What is the meaning behind the vocalizations between mother and calf? Why do they hit the surface with their long pectoral fins? Intimidation? Hypothesis. Communication? Hypothesis. Even the evidence is no easy job to prove: “the Sainte Marie Canal * is an area where they are supposed to breed but we have never seen neither mating or a birth in twenty years even though observation effort has increased exponentially” explains Valerie Collin.

* The Sainte Marie Canal is located on the east coast of Madagascar, between mainland and the west coast of Sainte Marie Island.

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Photo: CETAMADA’s “Research” boat sails alongside the whales before making a smooth approach so not to frighten them.


So, what is it that scientists see? When she* is in the field, she is on a boat. Waves, rain, wind, swell. Sometimes luck comes with a smooth glassy sea. Once there, patience is paramount. The horizon is scrutinized, over and over. The researcher can see the whale when it comes up to the surface to breathe. She observes the sea in search of the breath, this spray of water expelled from the vents of the animal. Then she has to get close, slowly, because the engine noise disturbs the marine mammal. Here, the whale appears, it breathes, the dorsal fin and… before you know it, the whale plunges. A few seconds of observation before it disappears into the blue. Studying the humpback whale is like studying elephants from the bottom of a pond. You only see the animal when it dips its trunk in to drink. The rest of the time you have no idea of ​its behaviour. “We know of cetaceans from what only happens between 0 and 3 meters deep,” admits Valérie Collin with a smile, no doubt happy to know that there is still much to learn from these gigantic animals.

* Marine mammal biologists are very often women, so let’s say “she”.


Photo: Some of the CETAMADA scientific team check that nothing is missing on board before taking to the sea.


Scientists are not short of ideas. Genetics, underwater hydrophones, Argos markers, etc. Despite the paltry funds allocated to research, they get organized. They think, tinkering with and trying to transform assumptions into assertions. Sometimes they get a result. Sometimes failures.

Patience is a scientific virtue.


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