Lucinda the whale

When you think of animals that live in Australia, what comes to mind? Koalas, kangaroos, wallabies… and how about humpback whales?

Humpback whales are some of the most charismatic and loved animals of Australia. During the months between April and November, humpback whales are found in large numbers along the eastern coast of Australia. Lucinda is one of these national treasures – an Australian humpback whale.

The name Lucinda traces its roots to Latin and means “Bringer of Light.” When our researchers saw her beautiful, nearly all-white tail flukes, they thought of light – and so named her Lucinda.

Lucinda and other eastern Australian humpback whales spend their summers (December through March in the Southern Hemisphere) near Antarctica, in an area that’s part of a region known as the Southern Ocean. Summer is a time of feasting for Lucinda and the other humpback whales. The whales gorge themselves on krill—tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that live in large dense swarms in frigid waters—and other small schooling fishes. An average humpback whale eats up to 1 and 1/2 tons (1,361 kg) of food per day during this feeding season, and store the excessive food energy In the form of thick layers of bodily blubber.

As the weather near Antarctica turns colder and the seas become icy, the humpback whales begin their time-honored migration to warmer sub-tropical breeding areas. It can be an arduous journey of 3,000 miles or more. Krill and small schooling fishes don’t survive in these warmer seas, so the whales generally don’t feed during their time in the breeding areas.

The majority of the humpback whales make the journey north to the breeding areas during the months of June through August. The first whales to make the trip are the subadults (whales that have not reached sexual maturity), followed by adult males and females. The pregnant females and females with calves are among the last to travel – we imagine they linger in the feeding areas the longest to consume as many calories as possible to support themselves and their offspring during the months ahead.

The pregnant females give birth, generally in August and September. Other females may become impregnated during their time in the breeding areas; they will give birth ten to twelve months later during the next year’s breeding season.

The whales return to the Southern Ocean from September to November.

Pacific Whale Foundation has conducted field studies of humpback whales along the coast of east Australia for 26 years. Our work has taken place at various points along the whale’s migratory route – in Hervey Bay, the Whitsunday Islands, Port Douglas and Eden.

Our first sighting of Lucinda took place on August 28, 1992. She was with another adult whale, in Hervey Bay, Australia. 

Hervey Bay is a large ocean bay located about three and a half hours north of the Australian city of Brisbane. Migrating humpback whales stop in Hervey Bay, sometimes for a period of a few days. It is a wonderful place to observe whales.

After our 1992 sighting of Lucinda, our research team has since observed her in six different years—each time with a calf!

Our first sighting of Lucinda with a calf took place on September 23, 1997. At that point, we observed Lucinda and her calf in Hervey Bay. We saw her again in Hervey Bay on September 28. A month later, we also observed her and the calf in Eden, on October 26. Because Eden is located near the southern point of the whale’s migration along the Australia coast, we believe that Lucinda and the calf were returning to the summer feeding areas.

A year later, in November 1998, we sighted Lucinda again with a calf, near Eden.

We believe it was a new calf. The gestation period of a humpback whale is 10 to 12 months. Once the calf is born, it spends all of its time in close proximity to its mom, and feeds on her fat-rich milk. Mom will generally wean the calf at around 8 to 12 months after birth. Females can become pregnant shortly after giving birth. Through these calculations, and considering the size of the 1998 calf, we believe that Lucinda had given birth both in 1997 and 1998!

Two years followed, and on September 14, 2000, we were rewarded with another sighting of Lucinda – with another calf – in Hervey Bay. We encountered the twosome again in Hervey Bay on September 21. This time, Lucinda was breaching! We were treated to a third sighting of Lucinda and her calf on the next day, September 22, also in Hervey Bay.

There was a period of four years when we did not see Lucinda. At last, on September 9, 2005, we found Lucinda. She was with another calf and an escort whale in Hervey Bay. We saw the three whales over the course of three days (September 9, 12 and 13). All three days, the whales were traveling.

Escort whales are usually presumed to be males, but are not believed to be the father of the calf. Most associations between escort whales and females may last for a few hours or a day. Male and female humpback whales do not form long-term bonds.

Lucinda proved to be a high-energy, productive female again. On September 16, 2007, our researchers encountered her with a calf and two adult escorts in Hervey Bay. Both Lucinda and her calf were very active; they were breaching and “pec slapping” (slamming their long pectoral fins down on the water to make a loud “whack.”) The other two adult escorts were also very active.

A year went by. On October 2, 2008, Lucinda was again found with a calf in Hervey Bay. The pair was accompanied by two adult whales and one subadult whale. The pod was displaying very competitive behaviors. It’s possible that the two adult escorts were each working to be the whale closest to Lucinda, to be in the most advantageous position to mate with her, should the opportunity present itself. We sighted Lucinda again on October 4. This time she was resting with her calf at the surface.

This brings our story to another reason why the name Lucinda is so appropriate for this productive female humpback whale.

There have been many dark days in the history of humpback whales along Australia’s coast. Until 1963, humpback whales along the coast of Australia were hunted for their oil and baleen. At first, whales were killed by hunters who worked from small boats and hauled the carcasses to “whaling stations” on shore. But later, steam driven whaling boats and harpoon guns made the killing more efficient – and deadly. The whalers focused first on southern right whales and blue whales, but turned to humpback whales when those other species became scarce. They killed about 8,300 humpback whales in the 13-year span between 1949 and 1962. Soviet whaling ships also hunted whales illegally in the Southern Ocean. In just two seasons (1959-60 and 1960-61), they killed an estimated 20,000 humpback whales.

By 1963, there were only about 100 humpback whales left along the east Australia coast. Very dark days indeed for the humpback whales.

Finally, the International Whaling Commission banned humpback whaling in the

Southern Hemisphere in 1963. Whaling, primarily for sperm whales, still continued in Australia, until 1978. Public outcry about the plight of the whales led the Australian Government to establish the Whale Protection Act 1980, which was later replaced by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. A sanctuary was also established for the whales in the entire marine area of the Australian Commonwealth.

Thanks to these protective measures, the humpback whale population has shown steady recovery, growing at a rate of around 10 –11% a year. In 2006, the humpback whale population along the east Australia coast was estimated at around 8,000.

Productive whales like Lucinda have helped to bring the humpback whale population back from the dark, post whaling days of the 1960s. Humans created laws, sanctuaries and global agreements to protect whales – but whales like Lucinda did the hard work, of giving birth, feeding and caring for their youngsters and raising them to the point of independence.

But the danger is not past. Japan’s whaling industry has announced that it plans to resume its hunt of whales in the Southern Ocean. The Japanese whalers are not targeting humpback whales at this point, but the threat exists. Pacific Whale Foundation’s research data, gathered along the eastern coast of Australia, is provided to the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, wildlife management agencies of the Queensland government and the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee, to help present a compelling case against the resumption of whaling. We thank you for adopting Lucinda and for supporting our work to keep her, her calves and all humpback whales safe in this part of the world.

Sightings of Lucinda