RARE WHITE SOUTHERN RIGHT CALF AT HOME IN ALGOA BAY
A new arrival
I was busy going through the safety briefing for a cruise on the 25th September on my whale watching boat Orca 2 when I was interrupted by my cell phone. It was one of my previous clients, Imelda O’Reilly, who lives above Brookes Hill. Imelda informed me that there was a Southern right whale breaching just off King’s Beach. My Dutch visitors were delighted by the news and we sped off and exited the port. As soon as we rounded the breakwater we could see the tell-tale V shaped blow of a huge Southern right whale.
I could not believe my eyes when I saw a brilliant white calf trailing in its mother’s wake. The mother would let out a thunderous blow followed by tiny puff from the new-born calf. It is quite strange that nobody had noticed the white calf after it had swum all the way along the beachfront. We kept our distance and followed the pair towards North end and the new soccer stadium. Two days later we located the pair just east of the new port at Coega where they remained for the next 15 days. After that they moved 20km west to just off North End, Port Elizabeth, where they remained for another two days. We have not observed them since.
The attached photos were featured on the front page of both The Herald and Die Burger newspapers in Port Elizabeth. Soon afterwards I received a phone call from Dr Danie Steyn who lives in Jeffrey’s Bay. He informed me that he had seen the white calf and cow passing Jeffrey’s Bay on the 22nd September, two days prior to the first Port Elizabeth sighting. After analysing his photo it proved to be the same white calf which means it was born somewhere along our South coast. It seems quite odd that the cow and calf pair would swim further away from their summer location, having to swim back again to get to their feeding grounds.
A large white baby
After a year long gestation period the caves are born at between 4.5 and 6 metres long. It is not an albino as its colour will vary with age, eventually becoming a slightly darker grey which is referred to as brindled. Only about 3% of calves born are white and they are nearly always male. The attached photo of the calf’s genital slit which is further from the anus than in females confirms that he is definitely a male. Their white appearance is due to a lack of pigmentation in the skin. If there was no pigmentation at all they would be albinos but here this is not the case. This lack of pigmentation allows the animal’s fat to be seen through the outer layer of skin. It is not totally white but has a black collar just behind the head as well as irregular black dots spread mainly over the back. They will change colour with age but never attain the same black skin as their peers.
Breeding times in Algoa Bay
From records along the entire South African coast, the birth of Southern right calves is given as from July to October. The earliest we have witnessed a calf here in Algoa Bay is in mid-July. The females calve every three years, a year of pregnancy, almost a year nursing the calf and then a much needed year break! It is estimated that the females can lose up to 20% of their body weight on a return trip to their feeding grounds in the South Atlantic. This is because they do not feed while they are here as their favourite food of krill and copepods are not present in our waters in sufficient quantities. They have however been observed feeding on plankton on the West coast. This year the first Southern rights came into Algoa Bay on the 19th July and the first calf was observed off Pollock beach on the 28th July. This season we have observed five new born calves. The last Southern right was observed in the bay on the 12th October.
Keeping close to mom
The calf does not venture far from its mother’s side for the first few days of its life but as it gets older it becomes more adventurous. A few years back while watching a cow/calf pair swimming past, the calf suddenly changed direction and headed straight for our boat. On approaching the boat the mother let out a thunderous roar which put the fear of god into the inquisitive youngster. Within seconds he was back at the mother’s side. The cow and calf share a special bond and can often be seen nudging each other while the calf tries to get his head on the mother or his tail and sometimes even his whole body!
Those ugly callosities
These whale’s heads are covered with a series of wart-like protrusions called callosities, pretty much like the warts we get on our hands as children. Although the pattern can be quite similar on some individuals, it is just different enough to be able to tell them apart. The most prominent one is on the tip of the snout and is referred to as the bonnet. Others are known as the blowhole, eyebrow, lip and blowhole callosities. They are formed just prior to birth and grow rapidly just thereafter.
As can be seen in our white calf the two chin callosities are already extremely large and seem to get bigger each time we see him. It must be remembered that the calf is growing extremely fast, up to three cm in a day! This rapid skin production and post natal moulting does come with a price however. It attracts large hoards of reddish-orange whale lice that feed off the dead skin as can be seen in the photos. These ones eventually disappear and are replaced by others that colonise the callosities, making the individual identification of the animals possible.
Practicing the moves
After about a week the new born seems to be getting the hang of swimming around next to his mother and tries some new moves. The first one we witnessed was an attempt at spy hopping where he tried to get his eyes above the water line in order to have a look around. Whales unlike humans can change the shape of their eye lenses in order to focus in and out of the water. After a few unsuccessful attempts he tried his hand at raising his tail flukes before a dive, not the greatest either. His next attempt was a breach and to our great surprise and delight he managed to get his body out of the water above the flippers. It was the best attempt by a newly born calf that I have ever witnessed, well done Lucky! The way the mother and child breach alternatively may suggest that this and other behaviour may be taught. The mother then proceeded to give us a splendid display of well co-ordinated tail slapping and breaching . . . . , just in case we thought about venturing too close!
It seems that calves start leaving our coastline during October when they are about eight metres in length. They hopefully they will be big and strong enough to survive the 2000km swim back to their feeding grounds at about 50 to 55 degrees south. They take up a position just behind the mother in order to reduce drag thus saving their precious reserves. Besides the long swim where there are other perils along the way. White sharks are surely a threat as well as killer whales which lurk off the continental shelf. Once the mother gets back to the Southern Atlantic, summer will be in full swing and the sea will be brimming with plankton. Here she will eat for the first time while still feeding her ravenous calf with breast milk. One wonders how the cow manages to get the milk into her calf’s mouth without spilling. Well the milk has the consistency of toothpaste and the calf makes a funnel with its tongue allowing the highly nutritious milk to be squirted in without much wastage. At about six months old the calf will attempt to skim-feed on plankton in order to supplement the mother’s dwindling supplies.
Lucky becomes a celebrity
I sent a copy of this article as well as the photos to the news desk of our local radio station, Algoa FM. Soon after I had a phone call from their DJ Daron Mann who said that he would like to interview me about the calf. The following day on his morning show we had a discussion about the calf which drew a huge amount of interest from the listeners in the Eastern Cape. It was also featured on their website and face-book page. It was decided that we should run a competition in order to give the calf a name and the winner would receive a whale watching cruise for two and lunch at the Algoa Bay Yacht Club. The winning name was Lucky as Southern right whales have testicles that way up to 600kg each!
Will he return to Algoa Bay?
The first white calf I saw in Algoa Bay was off the Swartkops River in 2002 and another off Hougham Park in 2009 but they were nowhere as white as this one. The only white (actually light grey or brindled) adult I observed was in 2008 just off the Port Elizabeth harbour breakwater. It was busy mating with a black female and he left once he had finished his business. I always look out for the return of the white calves but have not seen any sub-adult white ones to date. Our little fellow was first observed in Algoa Bay on the 25th September and we last saw him on the 12th October, 18 days and a new record for hanging around. Maybe this one will prove the exception seeing as he has become so familiar with the bay!
I had another phone call from Danie Steyn in Jeffrey’s Bay on the 13th October informing me that the white calf was again passing his house, this time moving in a westerly direction. We had last seen him at lunch time on the previous day off North End in Algoa Bay. This meant that it had been 22 days that he was last seen there, moving in an easterly direction. This is very exciting news that we were able to track a calf for such a long period. Photos confirmed that it was in fact Lucky on his way back to the summer feeding grounds. Let’s hope he has a safe journey!
Lloyd Edwards, Seaview, Port Elizabeth, 18th October, 2012.