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Tail first and making an early splash, some whales just can’t wait to be born


Did you know that whales are born tail first? They enter their water world by being able to swim from daytime. From the moment they are born, their first instinct is to swim to the surface for air.

While most enjoy the comfort of hanging out in mama’s belly until she reaches the warm northern Australian waters, some just can’t wait to get out into the big blue waters.

May marks the official start of whale watching season and we’ve already had an exciting teaser with the recent sighting of one dwarf blue whale mother and calf in Western Australian waters.

While this sighting is rare, it probably won’t be the last whale sighting of mother and calf we’ll see this year. Soon we will see several whale species moving along the west and east coast of Australia.

Dr. Vanessa Pirotta explains whale migration in Australian waters.

Read more: Thar she blows! An expert whale watching guide 101

Why do whales come here?

In general, whales migrate to Australian waters in winter to reproduce.

Depending on where you are on the Australian coast, you are likely to see at least the major migratory birds whalebones (toothless) whale species.

These include the iconic humpback whale, the southern right whaleminke whale (mainly east coast) and possibly the pygmy blue whale (west coast).

The first three species usually migrate north to warmer waters to breed and calve. They have spent the summer feeding in Antarctic/Southern Ocean waters, gaining a lot of weight. Now they are ready to expend their energy north to reproduce.

Dwarf blue whales, on the other hand, usually stay in Australian waters during the summer. They then travel down the west coast of Australia, past Perth to international waters such as the Banda Sea where they would breed during the winter.

Making a whale calf

Baleen whales are mammals, just like you and me. A humpback whale is pregnant for 11-12 months. Thus, female humpback whales that became pregnant during the last breeding season in Australian waters are likely to give birth this year.

A female humpback whale can mate with several males. Males are allowed to sing and/or fighting to mate with females. Males do not provide parental care for their young.

A humpback whale mother can give birth to a calf every two to three years. This is a relatively quick turnaround and is probably one of the reasons why Australian humpback numbers are so high to recover well, after whaling.

The ultimate water birth

Antarctic waters are too cold for a newborn calf. This is one of the reasons why humpback whales travel to warmer waters to breed.

Whales depend on a lot blubber to keep them warm. Newborn calves are born with very little body insulation, so warm Australian waters are an ideal environment in which to be born.

Southern right whale mother and newborn calf swim side by side.
Ahturner, Shutterstock

Traditionally, the northern breeding grounds for humpback whales in Australian waters occur in the Kimberley region on the west coast and in the Great Barrier Reef to the east.

Globally, humpback whale breeding waters are ideal at temperatures between 21℃ and 28℃. With climate change and an expansion of warming watersthis area is increasing.

Why do we sometimes see mothers traveling north with calves?

Sometimes we see mothers with newborn calves far south of the traditional breeding grounds. This is probably the case with the recent sighting of a blue whale.

Off the east coast of Australia, both humpback and minke whale mothers have been observed traveling north with bubs in recent years. Maybe it’s because the water is ideal and warm, or maybe some calves just can’t wait to go out into the world. Perhaps this happens more than we think, and efforts are still being made to document it.

A humpback whale mother and young calf pass through Sydney.  The calf is just visible as it surfaces for air
There is increasing evidence that humpback whales with cubs are being observed before they reach the warm waters of their traditional breeding grounds. Here a humpback whale mother and young calf pass through Sydney. The calf is just visible as it surfaces for air.
Vanessa Pirotta, Author provided

On the water for multitasking moms

Once a calf is born, mothers continue to swim with the calf next to them. This is the most efficient position for the calf to swim in its slipstream.

During this time, they can stop and rest. The calf can suck milk from the mother’s mammary glands. This fatty milk is perfect for applying blubber. And don’t worry, whale mothers, humpback whale calves don’t have teeth. In fact, all baleen whales, like humpback whales, are toothless. Instead of teeth, they have baleen, which are long hair-like structures they use to filter food when they are older.

Read more: Curious kids: Why don’t whales have teeth like us?

Breastfeeding duties also come when the mother is migrating, when she also has to watch out for predators such as killer whaleshuman hazards (such as ships, fishing gear/nets) and try to avoid males who may want to mate with her.

Impressively, she is also probably fasting at the same time, relying on energy supplies obtained in the Antarctic.

If conditions are right, she may also jump at the chance to feed in Australian waters. Talk about the ultimate underwater mom!

How can you see a mother with calf?

You just never know what you might see when you go whale watching. While your chances of spotting a mother and calf pair are greatest in those northern breeding areas, you may also see them as they migrate north, or on their return journey south to the Antarctic. The good news is that you can spot whales from both land and water, depending on where you are Australia.

Fortunately, all whales in Australian waters are protected. Mothers with calves offer special protection. If you’re on the water or flying a drone, please keep them safe and keep your distance.

Whale moms are really great multitaskers that never cease to amaze me.

Read more: Humpback whales spotted ‘bubble-net feeding’ in Australia for the first time (and we got it on camera)

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