ENDURING BONDS between ‘coworkers’ that persist for decades?  Cooperation between individuals that are related, not as kin, but in their pursuit of the same goals? Different tasks for different individuals?  These may describe humans engaged in industry, but it turns out they describe humpback whales, too!  The cooperative bubble-netting humpbacks of Southeast Alaska, so named for their use of nets formed by cylindrical columns of rising air emitted from their blowholes, exhibit all these attributes.  In fact, they are one of the few animals aside from humans that do.

Dr. Fred Sharpe has been following bubble-netting humpbacks for more than two decades.  By identifying individuals through their unique fluke patterns, he has come to know many of them quite well. There’s Captain Hook, leader-apparent in the bubble-netting pod that frequents Chatham Strait.  And Melancholy, well-known for his haunting, melancholic ‘feeding call’ used to drive the prey – always herring for these animals – into the waiting net.  In fact, Dr. Sharpe has identified about 60 regular bubble-netting participants among the 4000 or so whales that frequent Southeast Alaska during the summer foraging season

Releasing columns of bubbles and producing haunting ‘feeding calls’ are  two defined roles adopted by bubble-netting humpbacks

Releasing columns of bubbles and producing haunting ‘feeding calls’ are  two defined roles adopted by bubble-netting humpbacks

After two decades in the field, Dr. Sharpe has found that bubble-netting pods are formed by a relatively small subset of the Southeast humpback population

After two decades in the field, Dr. Sharpe has found that bubble-netting pods are formed by a relatively small subset of the Southeast humpback population

So why such social and behavioral complexity, which is unknown for other baleen whales? Herring are surprisingly quick and evasive prey.  Presumably, by working together in this elaborate way bubble-netting humpbacks are able to capture far more fish than they could on their own. And just as human workers can operate more efficiently when we have established roles and enduring partnerships, it is likely humpback whales can as well!

CLICK HERE to read Dr. Sharpe's PhD dissertation on bubble-netting humpbacks in Southeast Alaska


We now know that humpbacks use 'feeding calls' to drive herring into the bubble-nets.  What's even more remarkable than this form of tool use is that only a handful of animals in Southeast Alaska appear to specialize in this vocal behavior!  Melancholy and Trumpeter are two such specialists, each named for the unique characteristics of their calls.