Babies ahoy! Wee whales make their way south
We’re halfway through whale watching season, which means it won’t be long before we start seeing mother whales (known as cows) guide their newborn calves south, on their first journey to Antarctic waters.
Baby whales are not only adorable, they also provide an excellent opportunity to learn more about the life cycle of these magnificent creatures.
Travelling with mum
You may have noticed some baby whales heading north on the migration with their mum. These are likely to be calves that are still feeding on their mother’s nutrient-rich milk. Baleen whales take around a year to wean their calves, while toothed whales can take up to three years.
Between the time they are weaned and sexual maturity, which occurs when they are around 6-13 years old, whales are known as juveniles. Juveniles tend to stay close to mum, and begin to start mingling with whales of the same age and gender.
Migrating to breed
When female whales reach adulthood, they migrate north to breed in the warm waters of the South Pacific. Their calves are born around the same time a year later. Giving birth in temperate waters gives whale calves the best chance of survival, away from natural predators like the orca.
While some whales can theoretically produce one calf each year, it rarely happens as giving birth is a heavy strain on the mother. Once the calf is born, the mother and baby swim down along the NSW coast towards Antarctica, where they fill up on krill and plankton.
If you happen to see a newborn humpback this season, you may notice it has fresh lumps on its skin. These are oversized hair follicles, known as tubercles, which are connected to a large network of nerves. Scientists think these hairs may help whales detect food or changes in water currents.
As they grow, calves will also start to collect dark growths on their skin. These are barnacles, which grow in clusters until they gradually form vast colonies. Barnacle colonies are the large patches you can often spot on humpbacks and southern right whales, particularly on their head, flippers, back and tails.
Image credit: Jodie Lowe
Migaloo, the rare albino humpback whale, turns 30 this year. And while we only had a brief glimpse of him this season, fans are keeping an eye on the horizon for his familiar all-white skin. There have been a number of white juveniles spotted in recent years, causing speculation that Migaloo may have passed his colouring onto his offspring.
However, whales are often very pale in colour when they’re born, with their skin darkening as they mature. As the white calves have not been seen since, some researchers think their pigmentation may have kicked in and they eventually blended into the herd.
Spot calves on the coast
The south coast of NSW is one of the best places to see baby whales as they migrate south. Mother whales tend to stick closer to the shore on the way back home, to protect their calves from predators and teach them how to feed. There are plenty of great vantage spots, including Murramarang National Park near Batemans Bay and Ben Boyd National Park near Eden.
If you want to spot whale calves on the coast this spring, download the free Wild About Whales app to see where the whales are on their migration and find vantage points in a national park near you.
Header image credit: Jodie Lowe