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The Story of Laru
Animal #: E0008
Species: Humpback Whale
Population: Area V Humpback Whale Population/East Australia
Gender (if known): Female
Reproductive status: One known calf
# of sightings: 5
First sightings: 1985
Last sighting: 2006
Laru is a humpback whale that is part of Pacific Whale Foundation’s “Australia” family of whales. Because she is from the land “down under,” we chose a name originating from a local Australia aboriginal dialect. Laru means “nearby” or “close.” We selected that name because our researchers have had the privilege of seeing her nearby and getting a close look at her five times since 1985!
Humpback whales are the fifth largest of the world’s great whale species and they live in all of the world’s major oceans. Laru is a female humpback whale. At adulthood, female humpbacks are larger than males. Pacific humpback females average about 45 feet long in the northern hemisphere. Surprisingly, in the southern hemisphere, where Laru lives, females are slightly longer, averaging about 47 to 48 feet in length. No one knows for certain why this is so, but scientists theorize that southern hemisphere whales feed in slightly colder polar waters than their counterparts in the north, and require the extra body size to enhance thermoregulation (heat retention).
Humpback whales are migratory animals, credited with the longest migrations in the entire animal kingdom. Laru is no exception. She is part of a population of humpback whales known to scientists as the Area V group. This group feeds on krill and small fishes in cold waters near Antarctica during the warm “summer” months of the Southern Hemisphere. During the “winter” months of June to August, this population migrates towards the equator. They travel along the eastern coast of Australia, to reach warm water areas where they mate and give birth.
From September through November (“springtime”), the whales follow the eastern Australia coast back toward Antarctica.
Because we’ve sighted Laru at five different points along the eastern coast of Australia, she has helped to confirm what we know about the migration of this population of whales.
Our first sighting of Laru took place on July 6, 1985. Laru was in a pod that included one other adult whale, off an area known as Point Lookout on North Stradbroke Island in East Queensland. The locals call this spectacular island “North Straddie” – it’s one of the world’s largest sand islands, with huge stretches of white sand beaches and beautiful freshwater lakes in its center. Judging by the time of year, Laru was on her way northward to reach warm water mating and calving areas.
Laru was sighted again off Point Lookout the following year, on July 22, 1986. Again, she was in the company of another whale. Again, we believed that she was on her migration to breeding areas nearer to the equator.
Laru confirmed that for us, when we sighted her later that summer on August 8, 1986, nearly 2,000 miles north by the Great Barrier Reef! Seeing Laru here was very helpful in confirming the timing of the migration and the migratory path. She had traveled that distance in 17 days or less.
While in the Great Barrier Reef, Laru was accompanied by one other whale. We do not know if it was the same whale that had been with her when we sighted her earlier that year, but it is unlikely. Humpback whales do not appear to form long term bonds, except for mothers and calves, which remain together for about a year. Associations between adult humpback whales are generally no longer than a few hours.
After our Great Barrier Reef sighting of Laru, we did not see her for 20 years. At last we found her, on September 24, 2006, in Hervey Bay, Australia – and she was a mom! Laru was in a pod that included two mothers and calves. Until that point, we had not known Laru’s gender. The presence of the calf changed that for us. We are now certain that Laru is indeed a female!
Humpback whales reach sexual maturity at between four and nine years of age. Because we had a long absence of sightings of Laru, we do not know if she had calves prior to 2006. It is very difficult to determine the age of a living humpback whale, which is yet another reason why our resight history of Laru and other whales is so important. Over time, our resights will help refine our theories about the lifespans of humpback whales.
As you look at the identification photo of Laru that’s on your Adoption Certificate, please note the distinct and elegant appearance of her tail flukes. Because whale flukes each have unique pigmentation patterns, shapes and other distinguishing factors, we can differentiate one individual from another by examining its flukes. By comparing photos of whales obtained during recent field studies against photos of previously identified individual whales, we can identify “resights” – those whale that have been sighted before on one or more occasions. Laru’s story demonstrates the value of those resights in unlocking many of the mysteries about humpback whales.