A lucky shot: Dolphin playing with Humpback whale calf

23 Mar

Each winter and spring, Ma’alaea Bay plays host to the North Pacific population of Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). During the annual February whale count, it’s not unusual to see more than 1,000 whales in the bay’s relatively shallow waters. They come here to breed and birth the calves conceived the previous year. The Humpies are my favorite photo subjects, so about 40 times a year I hitch a ride on a whale-watch boat to get close enough to get that “one great whale shot” all the local photographers pray for. I never dreamt that shot would be of a dolphin.

In past years, I’ve only seen small pods of three or four Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). On March 8th 2013, my boat encountered a larger pod of Bottlenose consisting of as many as 12 to 15 individuals. This pod was really active when we first encountered it just outside the breakwater of Ma’alaea Harbor. The Tradewinds had dropped and the bay’s surface was glass-smooth, so I had a good view of the pod’s target: they were feeding in the midst of a fair-sized bait-ball of small prey fish (see photo).

Members of the March 8th dolphin pod

Members of the March 8th dolphin pod working hard to corral the bait-ball.
(Click on image for a larger version.)

The dolphins were kept pretty busy trying to corral the bait-ball, and so they didn’t notice when first one Humpback whale crashed their dinner party: it literally swam through the feeding dolphins. Then several other Humpbacks followed the first impolite intruder, also swimming through the meal in progress. Amongst the gate-crashers was a female Humpie and her small newborn calf.

With their meal totally disrupted, several of the dolphins broke off and began following the cow-and-calf pair, at times racing out in front of the calf and then dropping back to keep pace with it and its very wary mom.

I have heard several whaleboat captains’ stories of dolphins “playing” with (or at least being VERY curious about) newborn Humpback whales, but I’d never witnessed such a prolonged play session: this behavior of the dolphins went on for the better part of an hour!

Humpback cow and dolphins 8 March 2013

Dolphins keeping pace with Humpback mom and her calf.
(Click on image for a larger version.)

While this persistently nosey behavior continued, one of the dolphins suddenly got very close to the Humpback calf. Immediately, Mom became VERY agitated and began energetically blowing bubbles just below the surface and slapping her flukes, behavior usually reserved for times when a non-receptive female Humpie wants to discourage an over-anxious potential male suitor. The persistent dolphins didn’t seem to mind and actually began fluke-slapping themselves, as if taunting the nervous mother. The calf seemed to really ENJOY all the attention and began to race alongside the small pod of dolphins.

It was at this point that one of the dolphins closest to the calf leapt out of the water just behind the calf in a series of three lightning-fast breaches.

At this point in the festivities, I had my camera in BURST mode, hoping to catch at least one of the spectacular breaches by the excited dolphin. I wasn’t to know if I was successful until I got back to the office later that morning and processed the files in Photoshop. As luck would have it, I had been lucky enough to capture the best of the breaches (see photo below). To view a three-image sequence of the entire breach, mouse-click on the photo and you’ll be taken to the photo on my gallery website, FOOTSTEPS IN PARADISE.

Dolphin breaches near Humpie calf

Dolphin breaches just behind an equally playful Humpback calf!
(Click on image for a larger version.)

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4 Responses to “A lucky shot: Dolphin playing with Humpback whale calf”

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  4. tybeetabby 30 March 2013 at 2:57 PM #

    Lovely picture….normally when I try to “capture” the dolphins, I get a fine shot of empty water….the weather is warming and I have a new/faster camera…maybe this will be the year 🙂

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