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For the first time ever a gray whale mother has been filmed with not just one but two calves from a drone! Whale watching passengers and crew with Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari aboard the Manute’a (seen in this video) out of Dana Point, California, could not believe what they were seeing.

How rare is one mom with two calves?

“This year is our 20th year owning a whale watching business, explained Capt. Dave, “and I have never heard of anyone even seeing a gray whale with two calves, never mind filming it. I wanted to be absolutely certain that these were both calves that I was seeing by comparing the size of these three whales from above, so I put our drone up, and what I saw through the goggles made me want to give them all a big hug. One calf was in the baby position next to the Mom on the right and one in the baby position, head next to pectoral flipper, on the left. They all appeared normal sized and appeared to be swimming normally like one big, happy, healthy family! This was fantastic, since they still had thousands of miles to travel to their feeding grounds in the arctic.”

“This was truly one of the rarest and amazing sights I have ever seen!”

It is not known if these whales are twins or if one was adopted by the mother. There have been cases of dolphins adopting other dolphin calves of the same or different species into their pod. We have seen this with a lone common dolphin that we saw for several years living in a pod of pacific white-sided dolphins. And in 2013 a pod of sperm whales adopted, at least temporarily, a bottlenose dolphin with a spinal deformity. There are no known cases of a gray whale mother taking care of a second calf.

Captain Dave explains further, “because of the long journey, (the longest migration of any mammal), and the life threatening drain it puts on the mothers reserves to feed two calves, it is extremely rare for a gray whale to adopt a calf that has lost its mother. I heard about a right whale that did this in 2012 off Africa but never a gray whale. I think it more likely, though also extremely rare, that these whales were born to the same mother. While one calf is slightly longer than the other, neither calf appears to be undernourished, like we might expect in the case of an adoption. But, unless someone gets skin samples of all three whales we will never know for sure.”

Caring for two baby whales is a huge undertaking. Gray whale mothers can lose 30% of their body weight nursing just one calf on milk that is over 50% fat. In addition to the arduous 6,000-mile journey back to the arctic waters, this mother must also keep her calves safe from predators such as orcas. 1,000 dolphins and whales are estimated to die annually from entanglement in fishing gear worldwide (See Read estimates.)

“Let me tell you, Mom has her work cut out for her! These calves are growing at rate of 50 pounds a day feeding on mother’s milk. So Mom has double trouble as she won’t have a good meal until she gets at least to Oregon or further north as there is not much for them to feed on till then,” says Capt. Dave.

“She has to protect the calves from killer whales that are estimated to kill up to 35 percent of gray whale calves. And she has to watch out for ships and fishing gear which is often near shore where these whales hide in the kelp from the killers.”

“I hope to hear about more sightings of this beautiful trio as they make their way up the coast. We know that we handed off the whales to other boats out of Newport but we hope to hear more from others. I’ll say a little prayer that they make it to the feeding grounds and Mom weans them properly.”

Gray whales give birth after about 12 to 13 months of gestation to only one calf. Newborn gray whales are about 14 to 16 feet long and weigh around 2,000 pounds. Every year gray whales make a 10,000 to 12,000-mile round trip migration from the feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas to the warm waters of Baja, California. Pregnant females give birth during the southbound migration and in the protected lagoons in Baja.