Gray whale with two calves ‘the most amazing thing I’ve seen on the ocean’

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Gray whale mom with two calves by her side. Photo: Screen grab

There's a powerful bond between a gray whale mother and her calf. She'll nurse and do her best to protect the baby from the time it's born in or near Mexican waters until it reaches Arctic home waters.

It's an arduous task, with the little one facing constant threats that range from hungry killer whales to abandoned fishing gear. One calf, to be sure, is about all that mom can handle. So it was a remarkable event Monday when a gray whale mother was spotted and videotaped with two calves on either side.

Capt. Dave Anderson, of Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari in Dana Point, California, captured the accompanying aerial footage and described the sighting as "the most amazing thing I've ever seen on the ocean."

While such a sight is incredibly rare, the calves in the footage probably are not twins, as implied in the video title, although there's no way to tell without a biopsy analysis.

But that doesn't take away from the fact that the adult female gray whale seems to be taking care of two calves as the trio travels north along the Southern California coast.

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Gray whale mom with two calves as seen via drone. Photo: Screen grab

It was pointed out on private whale-themed Facebook pages that one calf is noticeably larger than the other, more evidence that they most likely are not twins.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a gray whale researcher, posted this comment regarding the sighting:

"Dana Pt., CA: Gray Whale with Two Calves, caught on drone video yesterday! One calf appears to be larger than the other. Most likely one calf was orphaned or separated from its mom, and is traveling with another cow/calf pair; hopefully she can nurse them both.

"Many years ago I watched a gray whale mom with two calves off our Gray Whale Census [station] at Pt. Vicente [in Los Angeles County]. Documentation of cetacean twins is extraordinarily rare; the only way to verify if they are twins is to obtain and analyze a biopsy sample from each."

Peter Folkens, a whale-watching naturalist, commented:

"It could be that the larger calf has already been weaned, perhaps a November or December birth, and [its] mom needed to get north to feed. That weaned calf is looking to hook up with a lactating mom with a younger calf. Demanding dominant calves like that are known in other species."

Schulman-Janiger pointed out that based on the rotundness of the adult female, she most likely has not been nursing both calves since birth; otherwise, she said, the mother "would be drained; she'd look emaciated. It’s more likely than one was orphaned/abandoned, and then adopted; she probably is nursing both now.”

Whatever the case, these whales are hundreds of miles behind most of the 20,000 or so gray whales that are migrating from Baja California nursing and calving grounds to and beyond the Bering Sea.

The northbound migration off Southern California generally peaks in two stages: males and other individuals whales in mid-March; and mothers and calves from the end of April into early May.

However, sporadic cow-calf pairs are sometimes spotted in early June.

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