Humpback whale song occurrence reflects ecosystem variability in feeding and migratory habitat of the northeast Pacific
This study examines the occurrence of humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) song in the northeast Pacific from three years of continuous recordings off central California (36.713°N, 122.186°W). Song is prevalent in this feeding and migratory habitat, spanning nine months of the year (September–May), peaking in winter (November–January), and reaching a maximum of 86% temporal coverage (during November 2017). From the rise of song in fall through the end of peak occurrence in winter, song length increases significantly from month to month. The seasonal peak in song coincides with the seasonal trough in day length and sighting-based evidence of whales leaving Monterey Bay, consistent with seasonal migration. During the seasonal song peak, diel variation shows maximum occurrence at night (69% of the time), decreasing during dawn and dusk (52%), and further decreasing with increasing solar elevation during the day, reaching a minimum near solar noon (30%). Song occurrence increased 44% and 55% between successive years. Sighting data within the acoustic detection range of the hydrophone indicate that variation in local population density was an unlikely cause of this large interannual variation. Hydrographic data and modeling of acoustic transmission indicate that changes in neither habitat occupancy nor acoustic transmission were probable causes. Conversely, the positive interannual trend in song paralleled major ecosystem variations, including similarly large positive trends in wind-driven upwelling, primary productivity, and krill abundance. Further, the lowest song occurrence during the first year coincided with anomalously warm ocean temperatures and an extremely toxic harmful algal bloom that affected whales and other marine mammals in the region. These major ecosystem variations may have influenced the health and behavior of humpback whales during the study period.