Motherhood. I’m pretty sure there isn’t even a word in the dictionary which can aptly describe that feeling a woman has when her baby takes its first breath in the world. When everything suddenly makes perfect sense and the need to love, protect and cherish one’s child takes precedence over all else. Motherly instincts are displayed across much of the animal kingdom and when we observe them in the wild, we feel a kindred spirit, a knowing somehow, of what an extraordinary gift it is to be a mom.
During the winter season along our Southern African coastline, our waters are teeming with new whale life and during our tours we are privileged to witness, from afar, the incredible bond which exists between mothers and their calves. Very often it is the humpback cow and calf pairs which fill us with the most delight.
Pregnant humpback females travel epic distances in order to give birth. Calves are not born with the protective blubber they would need to survive in the freezing temperatures of Antarctica, so expecting moms need to leave their freezing, plankton-rich feeding grounds off Antarctica, swimming vast distances to the warmer, glimmering depths of the subtropics, which serve as perfectly suitable whale nurseries.
Following a gestation period of about 12 months, a single calf is born tail first. The mother assists the baby to the surface for its first breath. Whilst rather diminutive in size in relation to their mamas, baby humpbacks are not exactly small and measure about ten feet long and weigh almost a ton!
These precious little souls spend their first few weeks travelling very closely alongside mom and there is frequent touching between them. A mother will rarely let her baby out of her sight in its first few weeks. She will spend her days nursing, resting and teaching her baby the ways of the deep. When resting, the mother lies in a horizontal position about 15 to 50 feet deep and the calf will position itself directly below the mother’s chin or tuck itself under her pectoral fin. The calf needs to surface for air far more often than the mother and therefore rises to the surface alone every few minutes to blow and inhale three or four times before returning to the protective pectoral fin of its mom.
Baby humpbacks have ferocious appetites and will consume an estimated 50-100 gallons of thick fat and protein rich milk per day. The milk is expressed from mammary glands that are hidden away in folds of skin along the mother’s belly. Because the milk is so rich in nutrients, the baby packs on about 100 pounds per day, gaining the weight and strength that it will need to make the long and arduous journey back to the productive feeding grounds down south.
Like most youngsters, humpback calves tend to be very curious and are keen to explore the big watery world around them. They seem to have little or no fear of boats and therefore mom’s often have to retrieve them from their explorations of our vessels. As the season progresses, humpback calves tend to become more and more playful. Like all babies, they have challenges with coordination and have to learn all their diving and swimming skills from mom. With mom as their teacher and role model, the calf often mimics her above water behaviour. Quite often therefore, we are fortunate to observe a mother and her baby breaching, tail slapping and pectoral-slapping in sync.
It is amazing to think that every year around this time there is so much new life in our African waters and that we are able to observe brief glimpses of the incredible bond between whale mothers and their babies. It is a poignant reminder that we share the same motherly instincts as other sentient mammals and that we have more in common that we will ever understand.