Good Migrations: The Human vs. Humpback Complex

On the night of Jan. 29, 2014, an exhausted, heavily bearded man washed ashore on an uninhabited beach in the Marshall Islands. His name was Jose Salvador Alvarenga, and, incredibly, he was alive, despite having spent 14 months stranded on the open ocean. The next morning, Alvarenga shouted and waved his arms wildly to catch the attention of a house visible across a narrow ocean pass. The owners of the house rescued him and spoke to him in broken Spanish, which they had picked up from watching Dora the Explorer. The story he told was amazing: In December 2012 he had set out from Mexico on a fishing trip with two friends. Shortly after getting lost at sea, his friends died, while Alvarenga survived by catching and eating slow-moving sea turtles, drinking their blood, and saving his urine to drink as well.

Alvarenga traveled an astounding 8,000 miles across the open ocean, but his journey had me thinking not about his unbelievable will to survive, but rather how unbelievably fragile humans are when it comes to long-distance travel. Hell, I can barely make the 35-mile trek to Union Station without getting bored, and that’s with a radio.

Despite humans’ limited ability to travel, some animals are not just adept travelers, they’re evolutionarily designed to make absurd journeys across the globe. In this column, I’ll detail two astonishing voyages by animals that will be sure to make your study abroad experience look like a literal stroll through the park.

First up, every prepubescent male’s favorite mammal: the humpback whale (no, not the sperm whale, you pervert). While humpbacks aren’t the biggest whale on the ocean block, they’re still pretty massive, coming in at a gargantuan 80,000 pounds spread over 40-50 feet in length. Each year, humpback whales head toward the poles to feed on krill and schools of small fish in the summer months, when the waters are warm.

As the Earth does its thing and rotates around the sun, the waters cool down, and the humpback whales are forced to move, though it’s not all bad because they get to mate whenever they finish their journey. It’s not just moving to the bedroom after a romantic dinner, however. The animals will swim anywhere from 3,000-8,000 miles to find respite from the cold, and breed depending on where their traditional mating and feeding grounds are.

These voyages are not all that unlike romantic getaways; popular destinations include the Hawaiian Islands, the coast of Costa Rica, and Australia (hey, Australia can be sexy). The only difference is these getaways last the entire summer, nobody eats anything, and when they’re over the whales have to make it back home, which may be 8,000 miles away, making the longest humpback journey a paltry 16,000 miles per year. Interestingly, since the Southern and Northern Hemispheres have opposite seasons, it is likely that northern humpbacks never even see their southern counterparts—although it’s reported they look up at the moon and wonder if anyone in the opposite hemisphere sees that same moon too.

While the humpback whale undertakes the longest mammal migration known to man, their journey looks like a 5-kilometer walk-a-thon compared to the yearly voyage completed each year by an unlikely player: the arctic tern. Though only 13-15 inches in length, this bird completes the longest migration of any animal on Earth. How long? Try 214.4 billion times the length of its body, which, if you can’t do the mental math, is about 44,000 miles. That’s right. Each year, thousands of birds, each the size of a corn dog, make round trips of 40,000-50,000 miles. 

To put that in perspective, if the humpback whale traveled 214.4 billion times the length of its body, it would have to journey 1.8 million miles each year. We humans would have to make yearly jaunts of 233,000 miles, which is just shy of the distance between Earth and the moon. Every. Single. Year.

Why do these birds make such a ridiculous journey? Well, living in the Arctic Circle makes for pretty cold winters, so they need a nice, warm summer home. Instead of Florida, Cabo, or anywhere near the tropics where it’s actually warm, the arctic tern buzzes right on past the equator and winters in Antarctica. Even more amazing is that the average tern lives 20-30 years, meaning they’ll rack up 1 million to 2 million miles over the course of a lifetime. That’s about the longevity of the average engine in a semi-truck.  

I tell you these things not to make that half-marathon you ran in high school seem like less of an achievement, but rather to allow you, dear reader, to be a bit more knowledgeable about the incredible things animals do every day. Humans of the modern world have a decided anthropic arrogance. We build skyscrapers, cure diseases, and have existential crises, and these activities make us believe that we have domain over the entirety of Earth’s resources and inhabitants. In doing so, we forget that we as humans have some serious shortcomings and lack some serious abilities. For one thing, we’re not so hot at long-distance travel. Just ask Jose Salvador Alvarenga. Or the arctic tern.

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