Mammals come as a very diverse group of animals. However, the one common factor that defines them as mammals happens to be the females’ ability to produce milk and nurse their young. That is why whales and dolphins are defined as mammals even though their home is the big, blue ocean. For the scientific community, observing the child-rearing practices of mothers – particularly them nursing their young – is something that is a possibility on land, but doing so underwater is a bit trickier. However, for the researchers at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa’s Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP), the impossible was possible after they managed to film some amazing footage of humpback whale moms feeding their young.
Annually during the winter months, roughly 10,000 humpback whales will make the 3,000-mile journey from Alaska to Hawaii in order to mate and give birth. Wanting to get a better understanding of their natural behaviors, the MMRP partnered with both the Goldbogen Lab at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and the Friedlander Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in order to specifically track the calves’ movements.
In order to do this, the scientists set up just off the Hawaiian coast of Maui, a well-known breeding ground for these whales, and ended up tagging seven humpback whale calves with non-invasive suction cup tags. Using acoustic recorders, depth sensors, and accelerometers, the tags were able to collect a wealth of information and data that the scientists could use to monitor the movement and breathing patterns of the whales. In addition, these tags had built-in cameras which gave a very cool insight into what it’s like to have a “whale’s-eye view” of the world under the surface.
Part of the series of cool moments captured were the moments when the baby whales nursed from their moms. The scientists were able to see how they did it, as well as see the dozens of fish gathering around for the milk leftovers. Even though the footage was only managed to capture 5-20 hours of data footage per whale, scientists already know that young whale calves will continue to breastfeed for the majority of their first year.
Lars Bejder, MMRP Director, said, “We can actually see what these animals are seeing and encountering and experiencing themselves. It’s quite unique and rare footage that we’re obtaining, which is allowing us to quantify these nursing and suckling bouts that are so important.”
Besides the whale-cams, the team managed to use drones for gathering additional data such as the length, body condition, and health of the humpback calves. It turns out, these little babies, when fully grown, can clock in at 36 metric tons and grow to measure between 48 to 62.5 feet!
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Happy 50th #earthday from all of us at MMRP! Even if we all have to keep our distance this year (unlike these whales!), we hope everyone accomplished something that was good for them and for our beautiful #blueplanet. Photos taken under NMFS permit #21476 to MMRP. #50thearthday #earthday50 #humpbackwhale #hawaii #research #marinebiology #luckywelivehawaii
Bejder and his team are annual observers of humpback whale behavior, only last year managing to capture footage of a newborn mere minutes after its birth. And during the feeding season, they went up to Alaska to capture ground-breaking footage of humpback whales bubble-net feeding – very cool whale practice.
Since humpback whales don’t eat during the breeding season, they have to rely on energy stores from the feeding season. Not only is a healthy energy supply important for the mother, but it’s also equally as important for the calves as well, since they rely on her milk to get them strong enough to make the trip back up to Alaska for the summer months. That is why the research that the MMRP team is doing is quite important in providing better insight into the species’ breeding.
As Bejder said, “Combining these data sets across the foraging and the breeding grounds is really going to tell us something about the importance of these different habitats for these animals.”
Watch the cool footage below:
Anastasia is an American writer and journalist living in Dublin, Ireland. Her Twitter is @AnastasiaArell5.