Researchers have discovered that whales use underwater mountains to help them navigate through thousands of miles of vast ocean.

The ocean is big — really big — even for some of the largest animals on the planet. And yet, whales are able to migrate thousands of miles across it from their feeding grounds to their breeding grounds. How do they find their way? Apparently, by using underwater mountains as landmarks.

hawaii-seamountsHawaiian seamount chain. Image: NOAA

Scientists tracked migrating humpback whales in the South Pacific with the use of satellite tags. They found that during these migrations, the animals seem to spend considerable amounts of time — between one and three weeks — swimming around underwater mountains, known as seamounts. These mountains may serve as navigation cues, feeding sites, and even meetup points to socialize with other whales.

Seamounts are ideal meeting spots for whales because they push large amounts of nutrients closer to the ocean surface, making them a good habitat for plankton (a major food source). These sentient beings are also thought to congregate at these locations to socialize, and may even breed there.

humpback-2Image: Christopher Michel

Whales, especially humpback whales, make incredibly long migrations in their lifetimes. We knew that they at least partially relied on Earth’s magnetic field to help guide them, but now we also know that they use seamounts to help them find their way. In addition, we now have new insight into what they do between the start and end points of their migrations – apparently, eating and socializing with other whales.

Featured image: Sylke Rohrlach