Scientists used satellite technology to track 16 tagged whales as they migrated thousands of kilometres northwards from the South Atlantic and South Pacific. For several days at a time they swam journeys often covering more than 1,000km with unswerving accuracy.
Most of the whales kept an almost straight course, deviating by less than one degree despite the effects of weather and ocean currents.
“Such remarkable directional precision is difficult to explain by established models of directional orientation,” the researchers led by Dr Travis Horton from the University of Canterbury wrote in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
Most animals that travel long distance are believed to navigate using a compass based on the Earth’s magnetic field or the position of the sun. But neither method can account for the humpbacks’ navigational ability, said the scientists.
They wrote: “It seems unlikely that individual magnetic and solar orientation cues can, in isolation, explain the extreme navigational precision achieved by humpback whales.
“The relatively slow movements of humpback whales, combined with their clear ability to navigate with extreme precision over long distances, present outstanding opportunities to explore alternative mechanisms of migratory orientation based on empirical analysis of track data.”