Outer Banks Humpback Whale Highway

Humpback Whale migration patterns. Note how close to the Outer Banks the whales come.
Humpback Whale migration patterns. Note how close to the Outer Banks the whales come.

Sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean the way the Outer Banks does, there is a sense that nature is passing right by our doorstep. This winter we seem to be getting an amazing sample of the wonders of the sea.

Humpback whales have always migrated past the Outer Banks, and there have been a couple of sightings this winter. The whales are headed for the Caribbean where they mate, give birth and nurse the calves. Not all in the same year; the humpback whale gestation period is 11 months.

Interestingly when they get to the Caribbean, the whales eat little if anything, living off their blubber.

As they pass North Carolina, they do feed. They are filter feeders, meaning they have baleen instead of teeth. Most of their food is plankton and krill, but unlike any other members of the whale baleen family, they do eat small fish, consuming about one to two tons daily.

The populations of humpbacks have been recovering. At one time the Maine group had less than 500 whales. Estimates now put the population at 900-1000.

Because they pass so close to the Outer Banks as they migrate—north and south—we do, from time to time have a whale wash up on our beaches, and that just happened in Southern Shores.

This particular whale is probably a juvenile. It’s reported to be 30’ long and adults are between 40-60’.

The whale will be examined to see if the cause of death can be determined.

Over the past 20 year there have been more whales washing up on Outer Banks beaches than in the past. It’s still a very rare occurrence—five or six time a year. But that is still more frequent than was recorded in the 1970s and 1980s. That is for all species of whales, since there are other types of whales that pass by the Outer Banks.

There are a number of theories about what is causing the increase. A rebound in whale populations is probably a part of that, but there may be environmental factors as well, although to date, nothing has been established.