Maui’s Humpback Whale Babies: This Year’s Models

18 Feb

In 2013, Maui’s Ma’alaea Bay was all about competition pods (see “Competition Pods: Maui’s Humpback Whales Play Rough“). In 2014, however, a huge crop of newborns have stollen the show. I have NEVER photographed so many Humpback whale calves in my backyard! And they are endlessly energetic…

Fluke Slap-9 Feb 2014

This Year’s Model: Fluke-slapping Humpback whale calf, 9 February 2014.
(To view a larger version, click on image.)

…breaching, fluke-slapping, pec-waving and generally just spending their days tear-assing around the bay at high speed! In the last two months, it seems the vast majority of “pods” are cow-and-calf pairs, occasionally including a single male “escort” hoping-against-all-odds that the new mom may be receptive to a little post partum whale nookie (most females who have given birth recently opt out of the dating game for one or two years, often not even bothering to migrate to The Islands once their babies have been weaned and gone off on their own after their first year).

Doing an acrobatic backward-facing breach, a newborn Humpback displays its ventral pleats (linear accordion-like grooves) that allow Humpies to expand the volume of their mouth cavities, 25 January 2014.

Doing an acrobatic backward-facing breach, a newborn Humpback displays its ventral pleats (linear accordion-like grooves) that allow Humpies to expand the volume of their mouth cavities, 25 January 2014.
(To view a larger version, click on image.)

The Humpback whales that visit Ma’alaea Bay’s waters each winter are members of the North Pacific population (includes approximately 22,000-plus individuals) that spend their summers stuffing their faces with krill and small bait fish in the temperate waters from the Aleutian Islands (Alaska) to the Farallon Islands (California). The Humpies don’t come to Hawaii for our great cuisine: they come for the sex. Breeding can take place on the way here, but the majority of the mixing takes place in our shallow (30 to 600 feet deep) bay and channel waters; most participants find their way to Maui’s leeward-side bays and coastal shallows.

My BEST shot of a "baby breach", 26 January 2014.

My BEST shot of a “baby-belly breach”, 26 January 2014.
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

The warm, predator-free waters of Ma’alaea Bay host the greatest numbers of migrants each year, well-known by prospective mothers as a great place to give birth to and raise their lively younglings.

calf & cow double breach - 19 Jan

“Calves” do EVERYTHING with their mothers. Immediately after they’re born, newborns are often seen performing complex behavior like this rarely-photographed “double breach” with their mothers, who are apparently teaching them to do “whale stuff.” 19 Jan 2014
(To see a larger version, click on image.)

A Humpback “cow” generally stays with her single newborn in Ma’alaea Bay’s protecting shallows for several weeks, allowing the new calf to exercise its new muscles and to suckle; her “formula” is a super-rich 40-percent-fat milk that is the consistency of very thick yogurt, on which baby is thought to put on 100 pounds of weight each day. When the calf is strong enough and sufficiently bulked-up for the 2,500-mile journey to the feeding grounds of the Alaskan waters, cow and calf will leave the relative comfort and safety of Hawaiian waters.

With its mom waiting patiently at a discrete distance, a new calf practices breaching. 19 February 2014

With its mom waiting patiently at a discrete distance, a new calf practices breaching. 19 February 2014
(To view a larger version, click on image.)

“Fluke slaps”, accomplished by forcefully slapping the tail (“flukes”) against the water’s surface while the whale is lying either dorsal-up or ventral-up in the water,  seem to be the favorite behavior of many newborn Humpback whales.

This young Humpie continued its fluke-slapping for nearly 20 minutes! 26 January 2014

This young Humpie continued its fluke-slapping for nearly 20 minutes! 26 January 2014
(To view a larger version, click on image.)

Some researchers believe fluke slapping to be a behavior calculated to attract attention or communicate in some way with other whales. 9 February 2014

Some researchers believe fluke slapping to be a behavior calculated to attract attention or communicate in some way with other whales. 9 February 2014
(To view a larger version, click on image.)

Its flukes still tender from a prolonged round of high-energy fluke-slapping, a young whale performs a gentle flukes-up dive. 15 February 2014

Its flukes still tender from a prolonged round of high-energy fluke-slapping, a young whale performs a gentle flukes-up dive. 15 February 2014
(To view a larger version, click on the image.)

One of the more endearing maternal behaviors exhibited by Humpback mothers is shown in the following 2-frame sequence I captured  back in early January: In it you can see (#1) a very young calf, possibly only a week old, resurfacing after an all-too-brief dive as its mother comes up behind her tired calf, and (#2) lifts the novice swimmer gently onto her large rostrom (her long, protruding upper jaw) and pushes it to the surface where it can rest. This is a commonly seen behavior, and it’s not unusual for the newborn to rest for some time on its mother’s head. It’s believed that, because newborns have such a limited lung capacity and can only stay submerged for 4 or 5 minutes at a time (adults have been known to stay down for more than an hour at a time), mothers repeat this behavior, gradually building up junior’s lung capacity with progressively longer stints below the surface.

Mom teaching "junior" to swim and remain submerged for prolonged times. 26 January 2014

Mom teaching “junior” to swim and remain submerged for prolonged times. 26 January 2014
(To view a larger version, click on image.)

It’s now mid-February and a good number of cows have already left for the Alaskan feeding grounds with their babies that were born in late December or early January. We’ve reached the “peak” of the migration season, and the number of departing whales will be replaced by progressively fewer pregnant females and newborns. While the ratio of males to receptive females is currently about 2 to 1, by the end of March and early May, the vast majority of whales in the bay waters will be frustrated males quarreling with each other over a rapidly dwindling number of receptive females.

I still plan to go out out on at least another 9 or 10 cruises, so my last blog post about this year’s migration season will include words and pictures about those squabbling stragglers…

Goodbye until then...

See you then… [ I am waving “goodbye”]

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2 Responses to “Maui’s Humpback Whale Babies: This Year’s Models”

  1. Derusha 6 September 2014 at 3:46 AM #

    Hello there, I discovered your blog by the use of Google whilst looking for a related subject, your site came up, it looks good. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  2. Terry Pritchard 26 February 2014 at 3:13 PM #

    These photos are fabulous!

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