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Swimming With A Bumper Crop Of Humpback Whale Calves (PHOTOS)

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It's a record!

During my recent stay in the Kingdom of Tonga, I was able to photo-identify 48 baby humpback whales, the highest number since I started keeping records in 2008.

Not only is this terrific news for the ongoing recovery of the southern hemisphere humpback whale population, but having so many whales in the area provided many opportunities to document their behavior and gain insight into the lives of these charismatic marine mammals.

For instance, three of the mothers with babies this year are ones that I've documented with calves in previous seasons. While it's generally accepted that female humpbacks can have babies every few years, it is certainly nice to recognize specific individuals who have done so and meet their offspring face to face.

Another interesting turn of events is that, for the third year running, the ratio of female to male babies favored the ladies. Out of the 23 calves I was able to sex, 13 were female and 10 male. In 2010, the ratio was 7 to 4; in 2009, 14 to 9. Given that I can't figure out the sex of every calf I come across, this apparent bias toward females may or may not be meaningful, but it's certainly a statistic that I plan to keep an eye on.

Perhaps the most fascinating encounters this season involved a number of injured juveniles. The calves concerned bore scars, some superficial, others painful reminders of traumatic, life-threatening encounters with predators. Without witnessing the actual incidents, it's difficult to be sure of what was responsible for inflicting the wounds, but after looking through dozens of images and consulting many knowledgeable friends, I'm betting that False Killer Whales (Pseudorca crassidens) were behind most, if not all, of the attacks.

Every encounter with an injured calf was a stark reminder of the long, hard struggle for survival all the newborn calves face in the months ahead. The good news, however, is that each of the injured juveniles I saw seemed none the worse for wear. They were playful, inquisitive and naughty, just like baby humpbacks should be.

If you're interested in reading more about my two months of humpback whale encounters, check out this detailed calf count or this map of all the calf sightings.

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