Humpback babies are born into some of the most beautiful water in the world—the warm, glimmering blues of the subtropics. Typically 4 to 5 meters in length, they are, like any baby animal, cute, endearing and a little out of control. They spend most of their first few weeks traveling with their mothers as they navigate through encounters with one or many males. They alternate between bouts of energetic flipping and flopping around the mother, then resting quietly tucked under her flipper or chin, or riding (slipstreaming) above her mouth. They have challenges with coordination and diving. Sometimes they cannot reach the depths where their moms are resting and end up flopping back to the surface, floating up tail first. Often the calf will twirls its body and swim upside down.
They are also very curious. They have no fear of boats or researchers, with mothers often having to retrieve them from their explorations. While their curiosity makes them fun to watch and easy to interact with, it also puts them at risk for collisions which is one of the reasons it is so important to practice safe boating practices while whale watching.
Mothers with a young calf are often found resting. Typically, the mother lies in a horizontal position approximately 15 to 50 feet deep and the calf will position itself directly below the mother’s chin or tucked under a flipper. The calf needs to breathe at shorter intervals than the mother and therefore rises to the surface alone every few minutes to blow and inhale three or four times while swimming in a circular pattern above its mom. The calf then dives back down to its mother. There is frequent touching between mother and calf.
Though grown humpbacks feed only in the summer feeding grounds, calves must feed in Hawaii and rely entirely on their mother’s milk. Calves nurse throughout their first winter, and through much of their first year of life. They can nurse either stationary or while moving—a skill that serves them well when migrating. The process of weaning is believed to begin between six and ten months of age on the summer feeding grounds, where more solid food is taken, and ends with separation from the mother after the first feeding season.
Like other baby mammals, newborn humpbacks love to play! Mimicry of the mother, or the male escort, is common newborn behavior in Hawaii and includes breaches, spy hops, tail throws and other common adult behaviors. They also play with objects in their environment such as sticks, boats or even a diver! They do now, however, play with each other, and seem to be prohibited from doing so by their mothers.