When the word ‘baby’ is placed before any animal, it’s easy to imagine how precious and adorable the new life is. The same is true for baby humpback whales. Everyone loves a kitten or a puppy, but there’s something so enchanting about seeing a baby animal you don’t get to see all the time. One could only be so lucky to see a baby whale gliding through the waters of Moreton Bay Marine Park. Humpback mothers are loving and attentive, and it’s a once in a lifetime experience to see the mothers with their babies. It makes you wonder, what do we really know about the majestic youth of the sea?
Female humpbacks in their adulthood give birth to one baby every 2 to 3 years. Once the mother is pregnant, she will use the time of the gestation period – 11 to 12 months – to travel to the warmer waters of north Queensland to ensure a much safer birth for her baby. Once the calf is born, the mother also has to prepare her baby for the long trip back to the cold waters to find feeding grounds in the Antarctic.
You might be surprised to know when the baby humpback is born, they don’t immediately share the same aesthetic characteristics that fully-grown humpbacks have. They are a pale grey in colour, but quickly darken within a few days of being birthed. They’re also very smooth, and don’t yet have the distinctive barnacles that adorn the underside of the chin as seen on an adult-aged humpback. Unlike any other kind of baby, these calves can weigh up to 900kgs, which is about a third of their mothers size. Mum-duty starts right away with these creatures; as soon as the birthing process is over, mum will bring baby to the surface for their very first breath. After this is completed, the adventurous calf will immediately start swimming and attempt to dive or even head lunge. Mum will never be far because she knows baby is already filled with curiosity and intelligence, and will try to explore.
During their first year of life, baby humpback whales are nursed and fed milk from their mother. However, they don’t latch in the same way humans do. Instead, they will position themselves over their mother while she squirts milk into their mouth through compressor muscles in her mammary glands. You can tell when the calf is feeding because the mother will usually stay underwater and baby will surface every few minutes to breathe. This milk the babies are fed from their mothers is thick, yoghurt-like and made up of 40-60% fat.
These ocean babies are hungry, drinking as much as 600 litres of milk in one day. Although it seems like a lot, it is all needed as the feeding helps the baby build up their blubber layer so they can safely travel back to the Antarctic feeding grounds. After about seven months, the humpback babies are weaned on to solid food.
Humpback whale mothers are very protective of their babies. To protect them from predators, mum will position baby over her head while swimming. If any male whale begins approaching, mum will place herself between the other whale and baby, as the males will push the babies out of the way to mate with her. Sometimes, a mother will also place herself between her baby and an approaching boat. Although, just like humans, they can differ in personality and other mothers enjoy showing their babies off in this circumstance.
One of the most famous humpback whale progeny has to be MJ or Migaloo Junior; his father being the famous albino humpback whale Migaloo. Like his father, MJ is an albino whale and we are fortunate in the Moreton Bay Region to have both of these unique whales migrate past our region annually.