Niue Nursery

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text by Annie Grey, images by Colin Gans

It’s not every day you find an abandoned baby on Niue it’s more likely to be once a week in winter. But considering this youngster measured over six metres in length, he seemed able to fend for himself.

It’s true humpbacks will never win any parenting awards by our standards but in the world of whales, it’s completely acceptable for a mum to leave her year old calf while she heads off to seek out some male company.

This yearling however was clearly missing his Mum we’d heard his plaintive cries on our first dive a few minutes earlier but as we headed for the second dive site, he was barely noticeable resting quietly close to shore.

We approached slowly, watching as he made a shallow dive, then one of the group slipped in to keep a lookout for him as we headed to his footprint – the disturbance on the surface marking where he was last seen.

Often whales will just disappear to the depths when they make a dive but this one stayed just metres below and after some very excited pointing by our spotter, the rest of us slid in as well.

The whale was curious he moved towards us and swam slowly around the group, maintaining eye contact the whole time. He was close enough that we could see every bump, every blemish, and every barnacle on his young skin

When he was satisfied none of us even closely resembled his Mum he headed off to continue his search for a parent who was obviously otherwise engaged.

Every year this scene is played out time and time again as the humpbacks come to the South Pacific island of Niue to mate and calve in the warm tropical waters which become a makeshift nursery.

The babies grow quickly (reportedly putting on around 45 kilograms a day when they’re first born) gaining in girth, so they can handle the long swim back to Antarctica where they swap mother’s milk for krill.

The calf stays close to the Mum for the first year but once he returns to Niue, he’s expected to take care of himself (with regular visits from Mum to ensure he’s keeping out of harms way).

Yearlings can be amongst the most interactive of the humpbacks while they’re big enough to be a bit independent, they’re still young enough to be playful and curious at everything around them.

All whale encounters are exciting in their own way even glimpsing them from the surface can be a real buzz but eyeballing them underwater is in another league all together.

Try staying calm when a 14 metre whale is swimming straight towards you from the depths, skilfully turning to glide past just out of arms reach.

Or for a real heart stopper, imagine a family of three putting on an impromptu show rolling, twisting, turning as you remain spellbound just metres above.

Or having front row seats for a display of macho playfulness as the boys hit town and burst through the bay at break neck speed to pick up any girls who are keen for a holiday romance.

Not to mention the excitement of spotting the first half of the season and watching her interest as she gets her first look at humans.
Some encounters are brief, some seem to last forever but all are memorable even if for no other reason than providing a distraction for a distraught youngster, abandoned by his Mum for the first time.

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