Mugged by whales; stunning footage captured in South Pacific

When boaters are “mugged” while watching humpback whales, it’s an intimately wonderful experience.

The term is used to describe somewhat rare behavior by whales – primarily humpbacks – that seemingly become so curious about people that they circle and even nudge vessels. The whales will linger for minutes, even hours, as they swim slowly around boats, often within feet of  people, at times gazing into their eyes.

The accompanying footage, posted to Facebook on Sunday by National Geographic, provides a stunning aerial perspective of mugging behavior, off New Caledonia in the South Pacific. (National Geographic does not mention “mugging,” but the term is used widely to describe this behavior.)

By Monday morning, the video had been watched more than 3 million times, and shared nearly 30,000 times.

Wrote Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a California researcher, in a Facebook share: “Reports of this mugging behavior have increased in many areas worldwide over the past few decades, as these charismatic creatures rebound from whaling.”

Wrote Joyce C. Chiu in the National Geographic comment thread: “Before humans came along, the entire earth was this pristine.”

Poignant, considering that the humpback whales’ global population was reduced by about 90% during extensive whaling in the early 20th century.

Humpback whales will sometimes nudge vessels during curious approaches.

Whale populations have since rebounded significantly throughout much of their range, however, and the mammals appear to have become more trusting of people aboard boats.

“After all the evil man has done to these beautiful creatures, they still want to be friends with us,” commented Diane Danielson.

Mugging behavior has been documented, mostly beginning in the 1980s and 90s, in many locations, including California and along the East Coast of the United States.

This appears to coincide with the end of widespread commercial whaling after a ban was imposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1982.

However, various types of commercial fishing gear indiscriminately kills or maims dozens of humpback whales each year.

New Caledonia is a French overseas territory, about 900 miles east of Australia, known for its dazzling blue waters.

Prime whale-watching season is from July through September, during the southern hemisphere winter, after the whales have returned from the much colder Antarctic feeding grounds.

Reads a passage from New Caledonia Tourism, referring to friendly humpback whales:

“The guidelines are strict: never disturb these animals. But these giants of the sea do what they want, and they are sometimes curious, so they come close, for your enjoyment. A whale makes its huge fin come out, as if to salute you, another one with her little ones observes from afar. This is an absolutely unpredictable spectacle, one in which nature decides to show what it wants.”


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