There has been plenty of bad news recently involving cetaceans, including two whale deaths in the past few days alone (off Florida and in the Wadden Sea). But a touching story is playing out off South Africa, where a southern right whale mother, who is caring for her calf, appears to have adopted an orphaned calf that had previously been alone and seemed to face an imperiled future.

Image showing mother right whale, calf and adopted calf swim (order of calves not known) is courtesy of Mogens Trolle / Dyer Island Whale and Dolphin Project and is protected by copyright laws. Below image is courtesy of African Wings

The rare event is being documented by African Wings, a tour company that utilizes airplanes to watch right whales during the five months that the cetaceans spend in coastal nursing and mating waters off South Africa’s Western Cape.

Mother whales already caring for a calf generally do not accept orphaned calfs because rearing and protecting a single calf is a monumental task. (Twin births are exceedingly rare and an all-but unheard of phenomenon.)

So it’s understandable that the right whale mother reacted harshly, at first, when the stray calf approached and attempted to nurse.

This began about a week ago. The airplane crew had flown over Walker Bay on the eastern side of Pearly Beach. There were three cow-calf pairs and a single calf without a mother. African Wings was hopeful that the calf’s mother was nearby, but during a fly-over the next day they spotted only one cow-calf pair and the lone calf, lingering nearby.

(The whales are departing for Antarctic feeding grounds and should all be gone by the end of the month.)

When the calf approached the adult female and tried to nurse, the female started thrashing the water.

“She was trying to swim away from the calf but it was probably starving and doing its utmost to drink from her,” Evan Austin, co-founder of African Wings, stated on the company’s Facebook page. “She was vainly trying to beat it away with her tail and rolling and turning in the water, but the little guy was desperate to drink and would not give up.”

Like a chapter in a children’s book, both calves seemed to bond and at one point were seen swimming closely together, on their own, with the mother nowhere in sight. She had probably just needed a break.

Fast-forward to Sunday, where for the first time the airplane crew watched in amazement as both calves nursed milk from the mother. “Both calves look healthy and the mother does not look too thin so there is a chance that all may end well,” Austin stated.

On Monday there was this update: “Just over our adopted calf at the moment and despite windy, bumpy conditions we are having a magical experience watching the two calves playing with each other. It’s an endless pushing and rolling and then one will lie on its side with one pectoral fin on the other’s back. One of those incredible moments with undisturbed wildlife.”

To be sure, the calf was extremely fortunate to have found both a source of milk and companions just in time for its first-ever month-long migration to Antarctica and the right whale feeding grounds.

Southern right whales are born between May and August and researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger pointed out that both calves in the accompanying image appear reasonably plump. (Austin could not discern which calf in the image is the orphaned calf.)

So it’s likely that the calf was only recently abandoned, for whatever reason, but had been nursing for several months, giving the young mammal at least a fair chance at long-term survival.

It’s an uplifting story that many are sure to appreciate, especially given all the recent bad news.

–Images are courtesy of African Wings

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