February 22 – March 1, 2014
Spending time on the Silver Bank, it is difficult not to anthropomorphize whales; we all have a tendency to assume our own very human thoughts, emotions, and motivations apply to animal behaviors. We can learn much by entering their watery world ourselves, but whales still live secret lives below the sea: we know so little about how these fellow mammals perceive the world, and perhaps we can never know. Do they feel love? Loss? Anticipation? Joy? Yearning? Certainly whales are intelligent and often highly cooperative creatures, and we are frequently witness to complicated social interactions here on the Silver Bank. The intertwining dance of courtship is one such example, and the impressive maneuvering of a rowdy group is another. By far the most relatable interaction, though, is that between a mother humpback and her calf: their bond is a long and strong one, and there is little doubt they exhibit tenderness and affection towards one another. Calves are born fairly precocious, but still require protection, nutrition, and much guidance from mom, and will seek reassurance through proximity to their mother (as we’ve seen, even older calves who have been deeply traumatized will continue to seek this reassurance, which mom appears to give willingly). Indeed, a young baby will spend much of it’s time tucked closely beneath mom’s pectoral fins, safely ensconced until it’s time to rise for air (calves are born without expert ability to control buoyancy, and must stay under mom in order to stay close to her).
© Leslie Rapp
Older calves will begin to range more widely, to develop strength and breath-holding capability, and to demonstrate more aptitude with behaviors. All of this still happens under the close supervision of mom, though, who appears often a teacher and sometimes a weary follower. Throughout the season, calves who are frightened or exhausted will return to the embrace of their attentive mother.
© Heather Reser
Such a close bond takes a toll on a mother humpback, physically and (undoubtedly) mentally. From a nutritional standpoint, a calf requires 50-60 gallons of ultra-rich milk per day, and puts on weight at an astounding rate: up to 100 pounds per day. Without the benefit of feeding, a mother rapidly expends her fat reserves, losing up to a 1/3 of her body weight before her return to the North. Feeding a growing calf is only a fraction of her responsibility, though: she must also nourish a burgeoning young brain through play, experience, and demonstration. As any parent must surely relate to, such a task can be exhausting, and it is natural to assume mom might relish a break. While it might be flattering to think we enter their world in graceful harmony, barely noticed, it seems likely we are utilized as novelty for a curious baby. As good babysitters (or perhaps as colorful bath toys in an enormous basin), we divert baby’s attention long enough for mom to rest. And rest they do in our presence, often for hours at a time: one such interaction this week with a playful calf and resting mother lasts for over 4 hours. Another interaction this week results in mother and baby circling the guests over and over, before mom finally settles alongside her escort. Circling to show a distracted baby we might be good fun? Perhaps. Whales are often attracted to the boat and to swimmers, leaving one to guess at their impressions.
Calf learning how to open mouth. © Patrick O’Flaherty
Mother and calf interactions, while certainly a highlight, aren’t the only action this week. Dancers are plentiful, including a particularly impressive hourlong encounter with one pair. In an unusual twist, a single female also displays what appears to be dancing behavior, perhaps as a form of solicitation, perhaps simply for the pleasure of performing pirouettes. Another pair of whales circles the tender closely for nearly 40 minutes, enabling in-water guests to capture some outstanding close-up photographs. Surface activity is also prevalent this week; rowdy groups are forming frequently now, as males compete for a dwindling population of estrous females. It’s a week of spectacular variety suited to a similarly varied international group of guests and crew: 12 countries are represented aboard the Explorer this week and 11 languages are spoken, from Icelandic to Hungarian, Hebrew to Swahili. Although different in provenance and often in thought, all have come with common desire to experience the magic of the Silver Bank. It’s a moving and emotional week, both above and below water, as a mutual love for life and the sea meets extraordinary encounters.
A very international tender!
Until next week….
Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures