World-first blue whale nursing footage

By AG Staff Writer 4 March 2016
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Drone footage taken off the west coast of New Zealand in February may be the first known video of a mother blue whale nursing her calf.

THIS VIDEO, TAKEN off the west coast of New Zealand on 5 February, may be the world’s first footage of a mother blue whale nursing her calf.

The drone footage was captured by Leigh Torres, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, while on a research cruise in the South Taranaki Bight, off the western coast of New Zealand.

Leigh told National Geographic that while she can’t definitely confirm what the two whales are doing, their actions strongly suggest the smaller whale is nursing. That would make this the first known footage of its kind.

Leigh said the whales are most likely a pygmy subspecies of blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda), which can grow up the 27m long.

Dr Pete Gill, a marine ecologist and CEO of Blue Whale Study – a not-for-profit Australian research organisation – confirmed that the actions and position of the smaller whale in the footage most likely shows a blue whale calf nursing.

“I have seen this behaviour several times and taken photos, but never filmed it,” said Pete, who is currently researching blue whales in the Bonney Upwelling and surrounding waters off south-eastern Australia. 

Important feeding ground

Pete said the footage was important as it drives home the value of the Taranaki Bight, west of Cook Strait, where researchers have been surveying blue whale populations to determine if the area is a feeding ground, with a cold water upwelling bringing lots of krill to the site. Pete has previously worked with Leigh studying blue whales in the area back in 2014.

On this latest research trip in February this year, Leigh said she saw five pairs of mothers and calves, as well as ten other adult whales. “Seeing nursing activity and a number of pairs shows us that this population is reproducing and that this is an important area for mums to come and raise their young,” Leigh told National Geographic.    

While it is not known exactly how blue whale calves take milk from their mother, Pete said the calf most likely touches its mother to say “give me a shot” and the mother flexes to squirt milk into her calf’s mouth, rather than suckling with their lips like most land mammals.