8. Elephant Seals near Antarctica and California
So named because of the male’s long and distinctive nose, elephant seals come in two varieties. The southern elephant seal lives around Antarctica, and the northern near the Pacific coasts of America and Canada. Both species spend most of their time at sea, and they head to land to breed and molt. It’s on land that they can be most easily seen, and though tracking them by water is a possibility, it’s an expensive and challenging option.
Southern elephant seals
Southern elephant seals breed between September and November and molt in January and April. Between times, they migrate to Antarctica to feed. 70,000 elephant seals use Macquarie Island, a World Heritage Site, to breed and molt, and there are a few commercial tours and expeditions that include stop-offs. Other migratory animals use Macquarie Island, including the black-browed Albatross.
Another major group of southern elephant seals uses the Península Valdés in Argentina. Also a World Heritage Site, the peninsula supports around 1,000 elephant seals during their migration. Good viewing points include near Caleta Valdés, Punta Norte, and Punta Delgada between August and April. This area also attracts killer whales around Punta Norte in March; the whales will feed on the elephant seal pups.
Northern elephant seals
Unsustainably hunted for blubber, there were an estimated total of 100 northern elephant seals using the Guadalupe Island area off Baja California in 1910. Now, the population numbers around 150,000. They feed in the open ocean, ranging as far as Alaska and Hawaii, and return to rookeries along southern California and Mexico to breed.
Breeding begins in December with the arrival of the males, who battle for dominance. The females arrive later in December, form harems of 40 to 50 females, and give birth. About a month after birth, they’re ready to mate again. The pups are left around March, and around the end of April are on the move. The adults come back to the area to molt in April and May, the sub-adult males molt between May and June, and adult males between July and August.
There are a few rookeries in California with impressive populations of elephant seals. Both are spots that have been used relatively recently, since the 1950s and 1960s. Año Nuevo State Reserve, 55 miles south of San Francisco, is a mainland breeding site for around 5,000 seals. Access to the park during breeding season is only allowed to guided tours, and during the molt, access is available by permit. If you can’t make it there, there’s a live video feed of an island in the reserve that’s home to elephant seals.
Another spot on the mainland is the Piedras Blancas rookery 7 miles north of San Simeon. Around 15,000 animals use this area.
9. Salmon in America and Canada
All 5 Pacific salmon species migrate between freshwater and saltwater habitats. Born in freshwater, they migrate to the ocean and return to the freshwater streams where they were born to lay their eggs. It’s a brutal journey upstream; the salmon don’t eat once they leave saltwater. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services:
Only a small percentage of salmon live to reach their natal stream or spawning grounds. Those males that survive the trip are often gaunt, with grotesquely humped backs, hooked jaws, and battle-torn fins. The females are swollen with a pound or more of eggs. Both have large white patches of bruised skin on their backs and sides.
With the building of dams and competition with hatchery fish, the wild Pacific salmon populations are listed as threatened and endangered based on the location of the natal river. The timing of the migration also depends on the location of the freshwater habitat.
When groups of salmon come together as they move upstream, they’re called runs. One of the most famous is the Adams River sockeye salmon run in southern British Columbia. It has a four-year cycle that should peak again in the fall of 2014, though they generally run every year.
Goldstream Provincial Park in Victoria, B.C., is another prime salmon run, with thousands of chum salmon migrating upstream starting around mid-October and lasting for about 9 weeks. The best viewing points are from bridges or cliffs that look down on the water. Find out more about the Canadian river runs here.
Pacific Salmon also use areas throughout northwestern America, including along Oregon’s Columbia and Willamette Rivers, between March and June. Salmon spawning in Alaska can generally be seen best between May and August, though again, the timing is unique for each river and for each species. More information can be found at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Atlantic salmon born in freshwater habitats will spend between 1 and 3 years there before migrating to ocean feeding grounds in the northern Atlantic near Greenland and Iceland. They feed for between 1 and 3 years and then head back to the breeding grounds.
Many Atlantic salmon populations are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and they can be found in America in New England and throughout northeastern Canada. Most salmon return in the spring and peak populations in the U.S. occur around June. There are around 750 rivers that support Atlantic salmon spawn. Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon can make the trip more than once.
10. Humpback Whales in Alaska, Hawaii, and Australia
Humpback whales are known for the unique song of the males and their acrobatics: they can jump (breach) and tail and fin slap frequently. The two main populations (northern and southern) both move between cool water feeding grounds and warm water breeding grounds. The animals can weigh up to 40 tons, and they have the longest migration of any mammal. Going out with a whale watching tour is the best way to get close to the animals, though in some places you can see the migration from the shore.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the state of Hawaii, encompasses the waters around the Hawaiian Islands. The sanctuary has a top 10 list for shoreline whale watching sites, with locations on O’ahu, Maui, Hawai’i, and Kaua’i.
The humpback whales are in this area between November and May, with peak populations between January and March. They come to Hawaii to mate and give birth. Nursing mothers usually arrive first, followed by juveniles, then adult males, and finally the pregnant females. They return to the same area where they were born.
The whales in Hawaii are North Pacific humpbacks that feed in southeastern Alaska, around 2,800 miles away. Whales will move back towards the feeding grounds in May and stay through October. Glacier Bay National Park is an ideal place to see humpback whales, particularly between June and early September. They’re focused on feeding, eating krill and shrimp, since they will not eat while in Hawaii. Glacier Bay National Park is only accessible by boat or plane.
The approximately 12,000 North Atlantic humpback whales move between the Caribbean and the northern Atlantic. Breeding areas in the tropics are populated between December and April near the Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos, particularly near the protected Silver Bank sanctuary.
The summer feeding areas range from Greenland to New England, and the whales are there between May and November. One spot to see the North Atlantic humpbacks in New England is the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. There’s an abundance of whale watching tours offered throughout New England and the Caribbean.
Pods of humpback whales begin arriving in the warmer waters around Australia in mid-May, and they move up the coast to their breeding grounds. The migration north can be seen through August. Humpback whales breed inside the Great Barrier Reef on the east coast and on the Northwest Shelf near the west Kimberly coast. After breeding between September and December, they head south to Antarctic feeding areas.
Since they move close to shore, some of the recommended places to see them without going out on a boat are from Hervey Bay and Point Lookout on Stradbroke Island in Queensland, Cape Byron at Byron Bay in New South Wales, Point Quobba at Shark Bay, and Ningaloo Marine Park in Western Australia.
If you want to spend your life studying wildlife, check out How to Become a Wildlife Biologist.
Have you ever seen one of these great migrations? Let us know in the comments.