February 8 – February 15, 2014
Week 3 certainly starts off strongly, with an in-water mother and calf interaction the very first hour. Mom is very accommodating, allowing several hours of close observation from the guests. This is especially noteworthy considering humpback mothers are highly invested in the upbringing of their calves, and must remain constantly vigilant. Threats do exist from predators and there is also risk of inadvertent injury or stress when evading an overly amorous challenger or defensive escort. Babies also grow increasingly bold as their strength and curiosity develop, ranging further from mom’s protective shadow. Given all of the pressures and responsibilities, one can presume that this mom might welcome a bit of respite: when the calf becomes interested in the brightly-clad humans, she can steal some rest. In any case, it is an enormous privilege to be granted such tolerance, and remarkable that we can instill such confidence.
Our second day brings an encore encounter with the same patient mother and calf among the corals, then an additional mother and calf pair move into the area. In contrast to the first pair, this duo remains slowly on the move. We follow alongside as baby practices “becoming a whale”: first a series of exuberant but imprecise spinning head breaches, and then some chin breaches (both demonstrated properly by mom a few times as well). A few pec slaps (the immature pec fin still lacking rigidity and impact), and then baby rolls on her back, white ventral pleats exposed and all her fins lolling lazily above the surface. All of these maneuvers help to develop strength and coordination, but eventually baby does tire. No wide ranging this time from this little calf: a nose push from momma is just the answer, with baby inverted and draped over mom’s massive head.
Midweek brings some dramatic action in the form of rowdy groups. As mentioned previously, rowdy groups are composed of 2 or more (up to 18+) males in pursuit of a female; the escort attempts to defend his proximity to the female, while other males challenge his supremacy. Female humpbacks come back into estrous approximately one month after giving birth, and while they don’t necessarily mate yearly, the males won’t be deterred from trying to win her over. The competition for a female can be quite heated and regularly results in bloody abrasions and torn dorsal fins; rarely it can end in death. Infant humpbacks must be able to keep up with their harried mother, riding her slipstream to conserve energy while the males lunge towards one another (and around baby) at high velocity. Our first rowdy group encounter this week involved a tiny infant, less than a week old, leaving us amazed at the precociousness of these “little” ones (little being a relative term, of course: the 1 ton newborns are still dwarfed by their 35-40 ton mothers). Not wishing to add to this youngster’s challenges, we do let this group go shortly (we’ll undoubtedly have more opportunities).
A male humpback with bloody tubercles.
Later rowdy groups demonstrate the diversity of behavior that make these encounters so exciting: the twists, turns and maneuvers employed in an attempt to monopolize the shifting space near the female. With the female in the lead and us (mere feet away) beside her, we are able to witness the tremendous energy and aggression of the pursuing males, and to hear the roar of their forceful exhalations. First two, then three, then four males join these melees. The effort is tangible, the power unfathomable. Some groups last for tens of minutes, others disperse as quickly as they begin, leaving the escort untoppled or the challenger to his new prize. One encounter ends in a series of enormous breaches just in front of our bow, another with 5 whales lined up abreast in a tentative stalemate. A particularly memorable rowdy group encounter concludes with the victorious escort courting his female directly underneath the tender, the dancing pair rising around us for nearly 30 minutes.
Rowdy group: bloody peduncle, bubble streams, fast & furious movements.
Lastly, highlights include a newly arrived juvenile (evidenced by the profusion of cold water acorn barnacles on the ventral pleat and around the genitals), who treats us to some languid logging and rolling at the surface. Although he, too, is dramatically interrupted by a pair of male interlopers, guests are still able to get really close and to capture some exquisite in-water photographs of his antics.
So, in short, another great week on Silver Bank! More next week…
For more information about this exciting opportunity to get up close and IN THE WATER with humpback whales, visit our website at http://www.aquaticadventures.com
Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures