Once in a Lifetime Humpback Whale Experience
Once in a Lifetime Humpback Whale Experience in Socorro
A Mother Whale Teaches her Newborn the Basics of Being a Whale
By Bruce Shafer
Dolphins were riding our bow wake and humpback whales were breaching in the distance as we approached Socorro. Some of us began to envision hearing haunting whale songs pierce the silence of our upcoming dives. We couldn’t begin to fathom the rare treat that awaited us.
Set a course 250 miles south of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and in 23 hours you will arrive in the Revillagidedo Islands, commonly referred to as “Socorro.” At Roca Partida, a single rock pinnacle 70 miles from the nearest island, several adult humpback whales were surfacing so near that we felt the boat rock - the sound of their gasps resonated in our ears. Upon spotting a mother humpback with her calf we scrambled into the pangas with fins and snorkels in an attempt to catch a quick underwater glimpse of the pair. Strangely, this mother humpback wasn’t threatened, alarmed, or annoyed by our presence. This unique situation provided ample opportunity over the next two days to be entertained and delighted by this mother teaching her newborn the “Basics of Being a Whale.”
Learning to Dive
Whales are mammals, like humans. And like humans, whales breathe air. The obvious difference is that whales live in the ocean and need to learn how to breathe efficiently. Like free-divers, young whales need to train to hold their breath for extended periods of time.
Young humpbacks are less than 20 feet in length, and this neophyte whale would effortlessly rise to the surface for each breath. Lots of splashing ensued and appeared to be playfulness but was most likely a bit of clumsiness. Since its young, one-ton body was mostly baby-fat, the calf was simply too buoyant. And much like an under-weighted diver, the calf would need to raise its tail and kick down to its mother waiting 60 feet below.
The calf would then gently slide underneath its mother and wedge itself under her chin. The mother cradled the baby between her two long, wing-like flippers. Her weight prevented them from ascending to the surface while the calf practiced holding its breath for as long as it could. Both mammals would remain motionless, conserving energy for several minutes. At times it was funny viewing the duo from the surface because it appeared that the calf was resting in the mother’s mouth.
The calf would come to the surface three or four times before the mother needed another breath, and many times the playful calf would check out the enamored snorkelers waiting there during their surface intervals. During this time the youngster would come very close to us, making it possible to see the curiosity in its eye.
Evident on the calf's back were many scratches caused from rubbing against the barnacles on its mother's underside.
Whenever the mother needed a breath, the duo would gently swim off to another location near the pinnacle. And using smooth, powerful strokes, mother and child would leave the awestruck snorkelers far behind.
At other times it seemed like a "navigation certification" was being earned as the mother would take the calf several thousand yards away from Roca Partida in many different directions only to have the calf navigate the couple back to the pinnacle. During those occasions, some fortunate divers were able to see the couple swim by in the deep water.
The calf seemed to be a quick learner. I am not sure what other standards still needed to be met, but I feel confident that in the 8 to 11 months it is being weaned, this beginner will earn a “full whale certification.”
When you do a lot of diving, it is very easy to slip into a “Been-There, Done-That” frame of mind. Interacting with these magnificent and majestic creatures would rejuvenate and humble even the most veteran diver. We all felt very fortunate to be able to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event.
About the Author
I consider myself more of a "Diver with a Camera" than an "Underwater Photographer." That said, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to capture some fairly unique images during my travels around the world. See more of Bruce’s photos at: www.scubashafer.com/
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