The Story of Lady

Lady is a humpback whale from Australia. Our researchers first identified her in 1999 – and we have seen her in 2000, 2005 and 2010 – which adds up to knowing her for eleven years! Lady was named by the Turner Family Fund andwe are pleased to share her fascinating life story with you.

First some background: like all whales and dolphins , Lady is a marine mammal. She doesn’t have gills; she must come to the surface of the ocean to breathe. Breathing is accomplished through her nares or blowholes. At the surface of the ocean, she is able to exhale rapidly, emptying 90% of the air in her lungs and refilling her lungs to capacity with a single breath.

Marine mammals also give birth to live young, and are able to nourish their babies, or calves, with milk produced by the mom. On September 21, 2000, we saw Lady with a calf in Hervey Bay, Australia. This sighting let us establish that Lady is a female.

Lady is part of a population of humpback whales that migrates along Australia’s eastern coast each year. These whales spend the austral summer near Antarctica, where they feed in the cool nutrient rich waters, then migrate northward to warmer areas closer to the equator to mate and give birth during the austral winter. As springtime approaches in Australia, these whales migrate back down along Australia’s coast, on their way back to Antarctica. There are thought to be 14,000 or more humpback whales in this population, which scientists call “Breeding Stock E.”

We know that Lady is part of “Breeding Stock E” because of the locations along Australia’s eastern coast where we’ve sighted her over the years. Our first sighting of Lady on October 3, 1999, off the coast of town named Eden, located in what is known as the South Coast region of New South Wales. At the time, Lady was already an adult. Our scientists believe she was migrating southward toward the Antarctica feeding area at this time. Humpback whales generally do not engage in feeding behaviors along their migratory route or while in their northern breeding areas, but Eden is a special place. Located so far to the south, Eden is know for its cold seas and the large schools of small fish found here. Our researchers have observed humpback whales feeding off Eden. It’s possible that Lady was “grabbing a meal” while in Eden.

As with all humpback whales, Lady has no teeth. Instead, she has rigid strips of baleen (made of keratin, a material similar to human fingernails) hanging from her upper jaw. To feed, she takes in large amounts of both food and water, and then strains the water through her baleen, thus catching thousands of small schooling fish such as capelin, pilchards or herring and planktonic organisms known as krill. An individual humpback whale can consume up to a ton of food in a day!

As mentioned earlier, we saw Lady a year later, with a calf, in Hervey Bay, Australia on September 21, 2000. The gestation period for humpback whales is 10 to 12 months, so it is possible that Lady was pregnant when we first saw her in 1999! Her calf was likely born in warm waters near the equator (possibly near the Great Barrier Reef). Like other humpback whale calves, Lady’s calf was able to swim about on its own from birth. The calf received its nourishment from Lady’s fat-rich milk (which looks like yogurt and cottage cheese mixed together).

The first 8 to 12 months of a calf’s life are spent nursing on mom’s milk, practicing behaviors such as breaching and tail slapping, and remaining close to her side, including during the long migration. A calf can double in size during the first year of life.

Hervey Bay is a special point along the east Australian migratory route. Bordered on one side by the Australian mainland and on the other side by the world’s largest sand island, Fraser Island, it is an expanse of relatively calm water. About 30% of the “Breeding Stock E” humpback whale population is believed to stop in Hervey Bay, appearing there between mid-July and early November. We do not know exactly why the whales choose to stop here, or why most of them remain for a few days before moving on. However, Hervey Bay is world famous for whale watching due to the large number of whales found in a relatively small area.

Lady apparently likes to stop in Hervey Bay during her migration. Our researchers saw her there again on September 14, 2005. At that time she was alone, without a calf.

Five years went by before we sighted Lady again. Our research team located Lady on September 5, 2010, again in Hervey Bay. They were in for a pleasant surprise: Lady was seen again on September 6, 7 and 8th! All of the sightings took place in Hervey Bay.

How were we able to distinguish Lady from other whales? Our researchers use a technique known as photo-identification. As whales are encountered, our researchers photographed the ventral, or underside, of each whale's flukes—a body area that's usually visible when a whale prepares to dive and lifts its tail above the water to gain momentum.

By closely examining the fluke photographs, researchers can individually identify whales based on the unique visual appearance of each animal's flukes. Factors such as the shape and outline of the flukes, as well as pigmentation, visible scars and other markings, differentiate one whale from another. The researchers compare the identification photos from each year against those from prior years, to flag “resights” – those animals sighted in Hervey Bay during multiple years.

Your adoption certificate for Lady shows a photo of her beautiful tail flukes.

By using photo-identification and identifying Lady repeatedly over the 11 year period, our researchers have been able to learn about her life – and also to better understand the population of humpback whales that travel along Australia’s eastern coast. Because humpback whales can live to be 50 to 100 years or more, we look forward to learning about Lady in the years to come, as we continue our research in Hervey Bay and other areas along Australia’s coast. By adopting Lady, you’ve helped to make this research possible.