A "habitat" is defined as an animal's home, a place where it can have access to food, water, shelter, and space. But for the more complex animal species, where they call home is more than a habitat. Humans, whales and even domestic dogs need to live in a place where they feel comfortable and can engage in social behaviors. I've been pondering the concept of 'home' a lot lately, as many people who travel frequently do. Maybe it's partly because I spent the first four months of 2016 calling a cruise ship 'home', and am now living out of a big red Sprinter, affectionately called "the nevervan." But I know it's also because I've been thinking about whales.
Where do whales "live?" The habitats of migratory animal species, like humpback whales, are characterized by what is called a "home range." This is an area over which they move throughout the year to fulfill their habitat needs and more. Within this home range are specific places where the migrants spend significant time, and/or carry out distinct behaviors. Humpback whales move between places where the resources they need to survive are guaranteed. Hawaiian waters provide warmth and refuge, ideal conditions for the basic animal need to reproduce and invest in the next generation. For conservation purposes, these areas within their home range are important. Through their protection and efforts to conserve their known feeding and breeding areas, the population of North Pacific humpback whales has rebounded to over 10,000 individuals, from less than 1,000 just 60 years ago.
Even a few days in Hawaii, catching the very tail end of the the North Pacific humpback whale breeding season were enough to remind me that it will always be a personal home away from home. What drives some humans to wander to meet their needs, and others to be perfectly satisfied in one place? Those of us who consider ourselves wanderers recognize that, similar to migratory animals, not all of our needs can be fulfilled in one place at any given time. Some argue that this wanderlust is genetic. For me, Hawaiian waters are a reminder of my first experience on a coral reef, which inspired a career of conservation education. And to continue this effort, I can't spend all my time in Hawaii, I have to move on.
The whales and I have other needs, and for the most part, we know exactly where to go to meet them. The majority of the North Pacific humpback whale population have migrated to Alaska for the summer, where there will be abundant food in the form of swarms of krill and oily fish. I'm on my way to Alaska too, not for food specifically, but for a purpose. So we seek our fills in sequence, moving between these places, sometimes even opportunistically 'feeding' as we go. This year, some of the whales made a pit stop in San Francisco Bay, eating and stirring up media attention. And after my time in Hawaii, I paid a visit to the North Cascade Mountians of Washington, far from the ocean, but surrounded by water that appropriately cascades out of every crack and crevice.
From Washington, I made a short trip to the beautiful mountain town of Telluride, Colorado for the 2016 Mountain Film Festival. In just a few days there, I was inspired by so many incredible stories, and the people who told them so powerfully. The team behind Elk River particularly struck me with their film that captured for the first time on camera the migration of one group of elk that spends half of their lives in Yellowstone National Park. The narrator of the film concludes that "migrations are what make [these] animals wild", able to move outside of the imaginary lines that define the park, driven and guided by a complex of instincts and cues we have yet to understand for any migratory species, including whales.
It made me wonder if moving, following that (possibly genetic) propensity to wander, makes myself and others like me 'wild' in a human sense. There's great freedom in just the ability to move, whether or not its necessary. I am lucky to have the opportunity as a human to wander, to move freely beyond, erase, and redraw the lines of what previously defined the boundaries of my home range. Although not all humans and other animals need to wander or migrate, the wildness of even these non-migratory or "resident" animal populations is being compromised in many places by fragmented habitats, which removes their ability to shift their home range if they need to. Many humans in the world have also had this option taken from them, both realities I have been reminded of by other films shown at the festival.
Maybe at some point, the necessity to move or migrate will pass, and us wanderers will settle. Some members of historically migratory whale populations stop migrating when the population is large enough to warrant non-reproductive individuals from moving. Maybe that's why Hawaii's whale counts this year were lower than in previous years. Beyond El Niño oceanic conditions delaying their arrival to their wintering grounds, it seems that many just simply didn't show up. Although there is much yet to be understood about why, we can wonder if perhaps they didn't need to. For now, the whales remain wild, and I will continue to wander, following both necessity and opportunity to learn more about our habitat needs and to define what it means to be home.