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A baby humpback whale in Mozambique

A humpback whale encounter

Forget the migration of the wildebeest on the plains of the savanna. Forget also the Sardine run and visit the southern African coastline in wintertime where one of the most spectacular as well as long migrations on earth is performed by a majestic giant: the mighty humpback whale…

A humpbackwhale season
From as early as June and July humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) start to appear along the shores of South Africa and Mozambique after travelling thousands of kilometers from Antarctica. These massive on average 12 to 16 meter long mammals have only one goal and that is arriving on their mating and calving grounds as far up north as Kenya. The warmer waters up north lack their natural predators like for example orca. Orca seem to prefer colder water and are seen around False Bay from time to time. Also, the water temperature is a lot more forgiving for a young calf since it has a very low amount of body fat directly after birth compared to more mature whales.

Adult whales do not feed during their migration as well as their stay in the warm waters of the Indian ocean. Feeding is done during summertime in the southern hemisphere when the waters around Antarctica are host to enormous amounts of krill and fish (like herring and mackerel). Some of the whales are observed practicing a cooperative feeding strategy called bubblenet feeding. Small fish are trapped in curtains of rising air released by one of the whales down below. Shortly thereafter whales scoop big amounts of these fish into their wide open mouths while speeding into the ball of fish. After entrapment they use their baleens to filter the fish from the seawater trapped inside. In doing so the humpback whales build up enough fat reserves for their next long migration in wintertime.

One perfect last day
We got the day of our lives when we encountered one of the newborns in Mozambique in the greenish waters of the Indian Ocean. This specific calf was quite big with a length of approximately 5m, suggesting that it was born earlier in the season. The pale-gray calf was so curious that it kept on coming back towards us almost nuzzling the camera. As it circled around us it was vocalizing as well. It chirped ( I cannot find a better word for it) during the full length of the interaction.
Mother and Calf
Mother and calf combinations stay close together while the calf builds strength and grows by suckling milk from its mother’s single teat. The calf drinks up to 500 liters of milk a day, which consists of 50% fat and has the consistency of cottage cheese. A humpback is 12 to 14ft in length when born, weighing over 1000kg. Drinking its mother’s fat milk makes it grow about an inch and one hundred pounds in weight each day. The calf’s growth is accompanied by the loss in weight from its mother. By weaning she can lose up to a third of her own bodyweight before she starts rebuilding her fat reserves during summer. Being a mother is not easy, even more so as a humpback.
Baby humpbacks are often seen copying mothers behavior. When mother jumps often the calf tries to create its own version of this beautiful aerial display. On one occasion during our trip we were treated to a couple performing their jumps each 4 times in a row! Often when mother slaps her fluke on the water’s surface, then also the calf will splash, be it in a more modest manner J
An end to our encounter
It seemed that the calf enjoyed our visit to the babyshower and we hope that our visit entertained it as much as we got entertained by the magical moment ourselves.. It was time to say goodbye when mom surfaced, possibly after a brief sleep down below and off they went... Let’s hope the baby humpback makes it safely across to Antarctica and manages to escape the killing boats of the Japanese…

joostvanuffelen's picture
About the Author:
Joost loves the oceans, travelling and (underwater)photography. Combining those three elements he creates ocean art, travel reports and ocean photo stories...

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