Luban, the first Arabian Sea humpback whale to have been documented crossing from Oman to India, has now completed a return journey, and is once again swimming in the waters around Masriah Island where she was originally tagged in November 2017. Luban’s tag has been transmitting signals for over 17 weeks and continues to transmit as of March 19th, 2018. Luban was first photographed and identified in the Gulf of Masirah in October 2002. Fifteen years later, she was tagged in the same location during a survey conducted under the auspices of the Environment Society of Oman and in collaboration with Five Oceans Environmental Services, local government entities and other partners. After spending a few weeks engaged in small-scale movements in the Gulf of Masirah, she suddenly headed offshore and crossed the Arabian Sea to a location just off the coast of Goa, India. She then made her way south, and spent several weeks between Trivandrum and Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India.
Researchers in India affiliated with the ASWN mobilized all their forces and twice rushed to the areas of coastline where Luban’s most recently transmitted signals had originated. There they collaborated with local academics, fishermen, various local authorities and the Indian coastguard with whom they surveyed south of Cochin . The team worked with these partners to search for Luban at sea and try to better understand what might be attracting her to the area as well as what threats she might be facing there. Researchers interviewed fishermen and learned that they frequently see and hear whales in an area called Wadge bank, known to be a rich fishing ground in the deep waters between India and Sri Lanka.
Approximately twelve weeks after being tagged, Luban began to make her way north along the west coast of India, until she headed offshore again – westward across the Arabian Sea and back to her starting point in the Gulf of Masirah. This incredible crossing reveals an important aspect of Arabian Sea humpback whale behaviour and proves the need for collaboration between Arabian Sea range states to protect this Endangered population. However, as is the case with so much scientific research, answering one question (do Arabian Sea humpback whales move between Oman and other countries in their range?), leads to a whole host of new questions: Is Luban’s behaviour typical of the whole population – with this journey representing the first time a satellite tag has lasted long enough to document it? Or is it only females who make these longer range movements? Or is Luban an unusual lone explorer? What was she looking for in India – feeding opportunities? Mating opportunities? Did she find them?……These questions and countless others provide good incentive for the Arabian Sea Whale Network to continue our collaboration and support each other in our efforts to learn more about these intriguing whales and how to protect them.
Arabian Sea humpback whales are considered Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and are featured as a Conservation Project by the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG). Read more background about Luban’s crossing and regional collaboration on the IUCN CSG website here. To learn more about the Environment Society of Oman’s Renaissance whale and dolphin project click here.