Happy(?) Mother's Day! What you should know about swimming with humpback whales

The animal kingdom has some amazing moms out there. One of them are humpback whale mothers who travel thousands of kilometres to deliver their babies in the warm waters around the Equator to give them the best start possible. In the time they spend in the tropics, they are on a strict non-krill diet (because there is none). Simultaneously, they must give their all to feed their babies full-fat milk to ensure they are growing strong. Because time will come and they both head to cooler but nutrient-richer waters, which is only possible when the baby is gaining enough fat, the blubber, to keep it cosy and warm.

Operations that target humpback whales for commercial swim-with activities have gained an increase in popularity over the past decade. It seems like now that nearly everyone has had a dolphin encounter already, there needs to be something more spectacular to tell family and friends and to show off on social media platforms. The season when these practices are conducted generally matches with the arrival of pregnant humpback moms, simply because mother-calf pairs spend more time at the water surface and move more slowly than their male or non-nursing conspecifics. This is an ideal scenario for swimmers to gain a closer look into the nursery.

Like many other mammals, humpback whales are sensitive when it comes to their offspring. And just like other mammals, recovering from birth and looking after a newborn is extremely stressful. Generally, it is a no-brainer to see and understand that this situation requires lots of privacy, right? But instead, whales find themselves exposed to boat noise and surrounded by splashing folks, celebrating their once-in-a-lifetime experience. Unfortunately, this is not a once-in-a-lifetime situation for the small humpback family – for them, it happens every single day.

How do the whales respond? Well, recent research by my colleagues has revealed that when feeling disturbed by swimmer approaches, the mom and the baby tend to be on the move - horizontally, by travelling away from the source of disturbance and vertically, by diving for extended periods of time. This means that the whale family uses much more energy than they have planned to use because ideally, they wanted to restore that energy for the big migration to the poles. It may affect how the baby grows, which further may compromise its survival. So just like for you and me, resting is critical. And in the case of the nursing humpback whales, even more, because on top of that, they have to form their mother-calf bond.

Best-practice whale-watching and interactions associated with whales, dolphins and porpoises suggest a swim-ban with juvenile animals. In New Zealand, we already see this implemented in national legislation around swim-with activities where people aren’t allowed to swim with wee dolphins. So why is there an industry that allows interference with nursing behaviour?

Because every location offering these activities is different, following different sets of rules, if any (yes, there are better ones and worst-practice scenarios out there!*), and because it’s popular and people are unaware. But with animal welfare becoming more important to wildlife tourists, people must know what the deal is. Because frankly, in mass-tourism scenarios, this isn’t any better than tiger temples or elephant ‘sanctuaries’ and worth a thought if ‘going to Tonga to swim with the whales’ is the ultimate goal.

So while we appreciate and cherish our moms this Sunday, that she’s been taking care of us, making sure we’re growing up safe, maybe it is time to extend this love and respect to those humpy moms as well.

 

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

*Look out for locations that aren't known for mass-tourism and those operators who strictly follow rules and respect the whales' boundaries. We're working hard to make those operators more visible to wildlife enthusiasts by encouraging responsible companies to get the WCA responsible whale-watching certification.

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