If Three’s Company, then Two Dozen Boats are a Crowd

“Looks like the same nasty 25 knot southeasterly blowing,” says Annie.

We decide to have breakfast and see if we can catch a break in the weather.

Twenty minutes later I am scanning the horizon, “Blows, several of them near shore,” I shout out.

“Let’s roll,” says Annie.

And off we head to the harbor.

Fifteen minutes later we hit our mark, about 2.75 miles east of the Abel Point Marina.

“There!” points Annie.

Suddenly three female humpbacks appear at the surface. Unlike the three females in the TV sitcom “Three’s Company” -- Janet, Crissy and Mrs. Roper, our three female humpbacks do not have any male escorts and they each have newborn calves!

This is the first time north of Hervey Bay we have discovered a multiple mother-calf pod. In over 35 years of studying humpbacks off Maui I have never observed mother-calf pods associating. In fact, it was not until 1999 in Hervey Bay did we first discover such a pod composition could exist. To my knowledge, only east Australia has shown the propensity for multi-mother/calf pods.

Why they occur, we are not sure. We do have a couple ideas. We think this may be a social phenomenon, almost like a ‘coffee social’ for the ladies and their newborns – a chance to share stories and forget about the ‘kids’ for a while (pardon the anthropomorphic tone). Or it may be a way of avoiding those overly amorous singing males who are always hanging at the fringes and creating tension.

Either way it is a sight to behold, three moms with their newborn calves frolicking in the morning sun.

Then the crowd arrives. Unfortunately because the trio is so close to shore, they also quickly find themselves in the vessel traffic pattern off Abel Point Marina. Soon the situation grows chaotic with yachts, sailing boats and commercial traffic all zigzagging about. The vessel operators appear surprised to see the whales this close, and several captains even come close to near collisions before they realize the whales are laying at the surface.

We remain in the area hoping our “research” flagged vessel will draw some attention to the whales.

Before long they disaffiliate and each head their own separate way. One mother-calf pair, however, remains steadfast and resting at the surface near the oncoming traffic. Upon closer look we discover this female has a scar on her left side from a prior encounter with a boat prop. Apparently the encounter left her unafraid of vessels as she and her calf calmly loll about at the surface.

Watching them resting at the surface near what is essentially the intersection of a very busy vessel ‘highway’ makes you wonder exactly how disturbed humpbacks are by boats.

One thing is for certain, if three’s company, then dozens of boats make for a very crowded and dangerous resting spot. Thankfully as the day wanes so too does the vessel traffic, and our fearless scarred mom with her newborn calf move north to less confused and conflicting waters.


Greg Kaufman