Humpback whales off Namibia: occurrence, seasonality, and a regional comparison of photographic catalogs and scarring

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Humpback whales ( Megaptera novaeangliae ) from a breeding ground off Gabon (0-4°S) and a migratory corridor/feeding ground on the west coast of South Africa (WSA; 33°S) differ genetically and in catch histories. Interpretation of the population structure is hampered by the lack of data from the intervening 3,500 km of coastline or to the north of Gabon. Here we collate all relevant nongenetic data on humpback whales from Namibia (∼23°S) from 2005 to 2012 and compare these with corresponding data from Gabon (2000-2006) and WSA (1983-2008). Data from Namibia include photographic catalogs of dorsal fin and tail fluke images, seasonal presence, and a photographic assessment of scarring and wounds from cookiecutter sharks ( Isistius sp.). No confirmed photographic identification matches could be made between Namibia and Gabon and only 2 potential matches were made between Namibia and WSA from dorsal fins. Humpback whales in Namibia show a bimodal seasonality in occurrence, with a primary peak in austral winter (July) and a secondary peak in spring (September), but generally low directionality of movement. Whales were never recorded to sing, competitive groups were rarely sighted, and very few calves were observed, making it unlikely that this is a breeding area. The prevalence of killer whale bite scars on flukes was similar at all sites. Fresh bites from cookiecutter sharks were highest in Namibia, intermediate in Gabon, but almost nonexistent in WSA. We propose that animals seen in Namibia in winter are on their northward migration and have intercepted the coast from farther offshore (where cookiecutter sharks occur), whereas animals seen in WSA in spring - summer, where they are feeding during their southward migration, have followed a slow coastwise route within the cold Benguela Ecosystem, thus allowing time for cookiecutter bites to heal. Keywords: cookiecutter shark, humpback whale, Isistius, killer whale, mark - recapture, migration, Namibia, Gabon, South Africa, scarring.

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Journal of Mammalogy

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Journal Article
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