Vol 4, Issue 1, February 2017

Cetacean Mother-calf Behavior Observed from a Small Aircraft off Southern California


Smultea, M. A., Fertl, D., Bacon, C. E., Moore, M. R., James, V. R., & Würsig, B. (2017). Cetacean mother-calf behavior observed from a small aircraft off Southern California. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 4(1), 1–23.  https://doi.org/10.12966/abc.01.02.2017


During early developmental stages, cetacean calves are dependent on their mothers for survival. Protection of young whales engaged in behaviors that are biologically important is critical for population recovery, so that appropriate management actions can be taken to minimize human disturbance. However, the occurrence and frequency of whale nursing and calves back-riding their mothers (both considered important to calf survival) have rarely been observed nor adequately quantified or defined. Therefore, it may not always be clear when disruption is occurring. We used extended behavioral observations, still photography, and video camera footage obtained during aircraft surveys in the Southern California Bight in 2008 – 2013 to characterize cetacean mother-calf interactions. Based on observations of four mother/calf pairs (two gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, one fin whale, Balaenoptera physalus, and one blue whale, B. musculus) and one killer whale presumed mother/yearling pair (Orcinus orca), we describe bouts of nursing and calves riding on the backs of their presumed mothers, including activity duration, frequency, and relative body positioning. We conclude with specific definitions useful to wildlife conservation agencies authorizing and establishing restrictions to certain human activities when they might constitute behavioral disruptions.