Your Momma is a Whale

29 August 2010

Despite the challenging weather and rain squalls about, we head out to sea.

One of the main purposes of our study is the development of a long-term data set of reproductively active females. Since 1984 we have documented the life histories of over 500 female humpback whales and their offspring. This is one of the largest known data sets of breeding humpback whales in the world.

Some females we observe with calves every couple of years, and some only every decade or so, likely because we fail to find them each year or so. Three years ago we resighted a female we last saw with a calf in 1984 and she re-appeared off Eden on Christmas eve in 2007. We have no idea where she has been all these years or how we missed seeing her. Such are the vagaries of live whale research.

The 'normal' birth interval appears to be about one calf every 2 - 3 years once they reach sexual maturity at around 8 - 10 years. Females are about 10-15% larger than males when mature, or some 45 - 50 feet in length and weighing about a ton per foot.

When you are studying long-lived marine mammals, the data can be slow and tedious in coming. That is why you must push yourself to go out every day and ‘see who is out there’.

Today we survey the waters on the eastern side of Hook, Whitsunday, Border and Edward Islands. The seas are rough and the skies darken and lighten throughout the day. Annie stands steadfast on the bow forever searching but the conditions prove challenging.

We find three mother and calf pairs today. As we round Hayman Island we encounter the same mother, calf and escort pod we found yesterday near Dumbbell Island. This time the escort is singing, and the calf is in a frisky mood, occasionally pec slapping and throwing his peduncle across its mother’s head.

We head west and find shelter behind the NW end of Hayman. The ocean falls flat and it feels like the day was never poor. Yachts are streaming to this spot in search of a safe anchorage and a break from the weather.

In order to increase our data collection on females, we opt to send Amanda to Hervey Bay early. We have received word that mothers and calves have begun to arrive there, some 900 km south of our position. Amanda will spend the next week collecting fluke IDs from the whalewatch vessels and speaking to school groups, before Annie and I arrive.

We can’t let Amanda leave without a send-off so we make her wash down the research boat one last time. Then Annie drives her to the bus depot in Proserpine, but not before stopping for a glorius meal of fish and chips.

“It was the only place open on a Sunday night.” gushes Annie “But is was the best fish and chips I have ever had in Australia.”

Foodies take note: that’s my fried food connoisseur speaking.


Greg Kaufman