A humpback whale teacher named Salt who helps keep you and me alive
Salt is a remarkable whale and she is likely the most famous humpback whale in the world. She was one of the first humpbacks to be identified back in 1975 when researchers began recognizing and cataloging individuals and the first to receive a name. We know that she's at least 47 years old and we have seen her family tree expand to 15 children, 17 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren.
Studying Salt has taught us much of what we know about humpback whales, and few know her better than Regina Asmutis-Silvia who heads up our team in the US. Being based in Plymouth, Massachusetts they are fortunate to be able to head out to sea during the summer months to study Salt or the other members of her population first hand.
Salt isn't just a great teacher - she also helps to keep you alive! Whales are like ocean gardeners, keeping the marine environment healthy, circulating nutrients, locking away carbon and fertilizing tiny plant-like organisms called phytoplankton. These phytoplankton capture around the same amount of carbon dioxide every year as 148 billion trees!
In this short video, my colleagues Regina and Sabrina explain this through an imagined conversation with Salt about her vital climate role.
I asked Regina a few questions about this very special whale:
Why are Salt and her family so important for the ocean and how do they contribute to climate protection?
Salt and her huge family play an integral role in the health of the ocean and our planet. Salt helps give you every other breath you take, fights climate change, and sustains fish populations. She has a very busy and important role in all of our lives!
What is so special about Salt?
Salt provides a window into the secret lives of whales. For more than 40 years she has helped us understand the lives and cultures of humpback whales, as well as the threats they face. Salt was one of the first whales to be identified in the Gulf of Maine where they come to feed and in the Caribbean where they breed, helping us understand their migration patterns. Her DNA helped researchers develop techniques to learn the age of individual whales.
As a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, she is giving us insights into how often and how long females can reproduce and the important role they play as matriarchs. Salt also showed us that whales can form friendships. She likes to hang out with specific adult females, especially when she is pregnant.
Perhaps most interesting is what she is helping us learn about whale culture. Salt forms bubble nets and bubble clouds when she feeds. These bubbles trap and school the fish to give her more of a mouthful. However, her granddaughter is a kick feeder. Kick feeders kick the water surface first, then form bubble clouds to startle and then school their fish. Salt did not pass this feeding technique down to her daughter and granddaughter which means it is a behavior that is learned from friends – what scientists call ‘culturally transmitted’.
What is WDC doing to protect Salt?
Salt feeds, travels, and rests in busy places so she faces the risk of becoming entangled in fishing gear or getting struck by a passing vessel. Resting is not always easy in areas where noisy boats and ships pass by on a regular basis. Here at WDC North America, we’re working to reduce these threats for Salt and her friends and family. We are working with fishers, scientists and state and federal agencies to ensure that fishing techniques are safer for whales.
We also helped to implement a rule that requires ships to slow down in high risk areas along the east coast and we have recently petitioned the US government to ask them to increase protection from vessel strikes. Through our Whale SENSE outreach project, we are working with commercial whale watch companies ensuring that they are operating safely around whales like Salt, and we are working to ensure that offshore wind projects are not only good for the environment, but also safe for whales in the areas in which they are being built.
As a researcher, what is your relationship with Salt?
She was one of the first whales I could identify as an individual. Her huge white dorsal fin was easy to spot through binoculars. She didn’t just teach me how to identify individual whales, but why it was important to tell them apart. Knowing her helped me learn about calving intervals (how often a mom has a baby), behavior (I noticed that if she was in a big feeding group she was always the leader as the first one to dive and the first to surface through the bubble net), and most importantly that there is always something to learn. I had been watching her for more than 10 years before I realized she had a lobe in the roof of her mouth that was unique to her. Now I can pick her out of a crowd with her mouth open! She is a good mom, a focused leader, and a loyal friend.
What's the most fascinating thing about humpback whales?
To me, the most fascinating thing about whales is what we still don’t know about them. The more I learn about them the more I realize how little we really know. For example, when I was an intern, I was told that humpback males only sing in the breeding area but we now know they sing throughout their range. I love that they still have so much to teach us.
Wonderful article, thank you. Our family adopted Salt back in the 1980s, and we are still her adopters today. She has taught us so much about whales and about the earth we live on. The wonderful picture book about her baby, Crystal, is still a treasured item on our bookshelf. Salt’s influence also led me to be one of the reviewers of the proposal to make Stellwagen Bank an official marine sanctuary. I’m very proud of that, and still have the thick books that I had to review in the process before writing my support letter.
Salt is so wonderful, and I look forward every year to hearing that she has again been sighted. I wish her, and all her descendants and friends, a blessed, long, and safe future.
When I was an intern on Capt John boats ( way back in 1995) when I took a course through Bridgewater State College (now University) I learned that Regina is AMAZING at identifying individual humpbacks. ConCongratulations to Regina on becoming executive director and best of luck! She is SUPER knowledgeable and is very passionate about her work. My email is no coincidence! Saltmom********
Salt was one of the first whales I saw when I was whale watching back in the 70’s. I have her tale tattooed on my wrist.
Tina, Columbus, Ohio