Huge Population of Rare Whales Found off Madagascar

About 80 Omura’s whales have been spotted off the coast, doubling the number of sightings in the entire research record of the animal.

Scientists have found the largest population of a rare tropical whale species that only last year was videotaped for the first time.

Led Dr. Salvatore Cerchio from the New England Aquarium, about 80 Omura's whales of Madagascar were spotted in November off the coast. That doubled the number of sightings in the entire research record of these whales and included five mother/calf pairs and several whales seen before – indicating this might be a resident population living around the island nation off the southeast coast of Africa.

Cerchio first grabbed headlines when his team in October released the first-ever video of these rare, 33- to 38-foot, tropical whales. A month later, Cerchio returned to Madagascar just as unprecedented levels of "tiny shrimp" known as euphasiids were being found in the water. That hinted that there might be plenty of whales around.

And there were.

The 80 whales offered researchers plenty of subjects to study, allowing them to gather reams of audio and video data of things like their feeding behavior as well as mother/calf pairs and the species' distinct irregular marking and colorings around their head.

The team also collected two weeks of continuous acoustic data from remote recorders including dense choruses of Omura's songs.

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Few animals are as majestic and awe-inspiring as whales. Their sheer size, coupled with their underwater elegance, makes seeing just a hint of one breaking the ocean's surface a life goal for many of us. Among the more well-known of these glorious giants is the musical, acrobatic humpback. "This photo was taken in August off of the island of Vavau in the Kingdom of Tonga," says photographer Karim Iliya, "moments after this juvenile humpback whale took a sharp turn to avoid smashing into me. See more of his story in a

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"The babies are these curious clumsy little creatures that can fill you with so much joy that your heart feels like it will explode from your chest," Iliya said.

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Not every interaction is so calm and peaceful. When you swim with whales, sometimes you get a playful juvenile, but other times you can find yourself in the middle of an all out frenzy. This is what happened to Iliya after jumping into the water, not knowing battle-scarred adult male humpbacks were fighting over the right to mate with the lone female.

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"Four large male humpback whales emerged, two of them broke off and started smashing into each other blowing bubbles, tails whipping around," Iliya said. "They came closer and closer all the while fighting, a 5-meter-long tale whipped near my face, and the thought occurred to me that I would be pulverized between these two school bus sized animals."

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"Looking back on the images that I had taken I see that the whales were looking at me, even as they fought. It is a true testament to the gentleness of these giants that they would take the time and effort to avoid crushing this tiny little creature before them. "

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"The thing that I loved most about photographing humpback whales is the level of interaction that you have with them. They are highly intelligent creatures with distinct personalities and will convey a range of emotions and attitude like curiosity and playfulness, or even annoyance."

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