The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In our second to last blog entry it had been pointed out that being in this field of work takes a certain line of discipline. It takes patience, tolerance, inquisition, and the ability to desensitize and remove emotions when the going gets tough and the tough gets going (in nature).

Last year we watched as a pod of orcas approached a lone subadult humpback whale off the coast of Eden, New South Wales. For about 15 minutes solid eyes were wide, teeth were clenched, and pulses were racing as the orcas approached, but there is no doubt that that camera was up and ready to document the whole event. Although it is human nature to nurture, live and let live, as a marine researcher sometimes you just have to step back and let nature take its course… and naturally, the orcas decided to keep on their way.

On September 18th of this year the research team set out for another day on the water, ready to study and document whatever nature might present to us. By 10:00am we had already encountered our 3rd mom and calf pod of the day, only to discover that this one was to be slightly different. This mom indeed had two calves, but turns out only one was to be her own.

An abandoned calf had simply found its way to the nearest mother it could find, and it soon became apparent that the mother and her calf wanted nothing to do with this ill fortuned animal. The abandoned calf spent the next 5 minutes trying to gain access to the female’s mammary slits for a feed, met only with a threatening swish of the fluke from the mother with every attempt. Agitated and impatient the mom and calf pair soon broke free from the abandoned animal and continued on their own way, the mother happy to have protected her energy supply for her own offspring.

Still a fairly healthy animal, the abandoned calf proceeded to breach and splash about before its next encounter with a multiple mom and calf pod. We were now observing two mother’s and three calves for the first time, feeling slightly nervous for the calf, but poised and ready to document nature at its worst. This calf however lived to see another day. No harm was done to the calf by the other mothers, and no harm had been done by any sharks in the area when we witnessed the calf again today. Albeit slightly more banged up, the calf had seemingly found some solace in an active adult humpback today. Not recognizing the animal at first, it was Amanda who pointed out that the adult likely seemed too small to be a mother and that the calf (a bit beat up) looked like it had seen better days. It wasn’t until looking back at the pictures this evening that we were indeed able to confirm that the same calf we had seen several days prior, was still alive and fairly well.

Although this calf may likely fall victim to the harsh realities of nature, the story is not all null and doom. Between 20-30% of calves are thought to not survive their first year as is. Furthermore, when calves start to show up abandoned and motherless we believe it may in fact be a sign that the population itself is nearing its natural peak (ie.- energetically, nature can no longer sustain a population of such immense proportions). This single abandoned calf is not meant to be a reflection on the status of the entire East Australian population (as humpbacks do still need protection), however it may very well serve as a reminder that this is indeed a very forgiving, natural process.

Annie Macie


KJL - PWF Member since 2002 (visitor) says:

I'm no expert on marine life. But much of the "hunting for scientific reasons" by the Japanese is done in Antarctic waters quite a distance south of Australia. So the mother being killed and teh calf making it to Hervey Bay doesn't seem likely. And bottle feeding an abandoned humpback calf? Definitely not nearly as easy as bottle feeding a cow calf, colt, kitten or puppy. From one of our PWF whale watch cruises, I remember the naturalist talking about the size and weight of a new born being along the lines of a VW Beatle and that the mother provided 40 or 50 gallons of high fat content milk everyday. Not something you could do as a human trying to sustain a humpback calf even if you had a way to produce a product that would be palpable. Sometimes moral obligations have to be tempered by reality.

Nature Lover (visitor) says:

I agree that we need to let nature take its course, but are we sure that the mother was not killed by the humans and the calf became abandoned ? If there is a way to intervene and help the calf would it not be our moral duty to do so ? We do for the human babies, the abandoned children need our help so why not the animals. We do not say let the nature take its course and control the population with orphan children then why the approach with animal babies. Is there no way we can provide some food so that it can sustain itself ?

greg says:

The hard answer is: no, there is virtually nothing we can do to feed and care for these abandoned calves. Keep in mind the calf mortality rate ranges between 20-30% in the first year. Clearly the mother's have some way of detecting the 'fitness' of their calves and therefore choose abandonment over investing time/energy in raising their newborn. Yes, the mothers can fall prey to sharks, ship strikes and entanglement anytime after birth, which would also result in abandoned calves. It is sad, and often gut wrenching to witness, but if we keep focused on the population as a whole, the good news is: the population is recoverying.

Beth Salles (visitor) says:

Such is the harsh realities of Mother Nature at her job. It's a natural process though hard to think about has been going on forever. It's just because of the outstanding research like what you have been doing, it is brought to light how harsh life in the ocean can be. I still would rather these animals face death in a natural environment than be killed by hunters and poachers.