A humpback whale calf nursing off the coast of Hawaii.
Gif: MMRP UH/Gizmodo

Nursing is a rather straightforward process for most terrestrial mammals, but the same cannot be said for humpback whales, in which a swimming mother and calf have to carefully coordinate their movements. Unprecedented video taken off the coast of Hawaii shows this delicate process in action.

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Marine biologists from the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) at the University of Hawaiʻi in Mānoa captured the video back in February while participating in a two-week sampling expedition off the coast of Maui, according to a press release. The purpose of the mission was to document humpback whale behavior in this area, which is their breeding ground.

Shown from the perspective of the humpback whale calf, the video is quite extraordinary. A calf carefully navigates toward its mother’s underbelly to gulp down a milky snack. Opportunistic fish join in to grab morsels of marine detritus that come loose during the feeding session, as puffs of missed milk drift away.

Another clip shows a mother humpback whale swimming beside her calf, as the two gently nudge and look upon each other. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the serene life of these majestic creatures, who can grow upwards of 15 to 16 meters in length (49 to 52 feet).

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To capture these videos, the researchers attached non-invasive suction cup tags to the backs of seven humpback whale calves, all of whom were still dependent on their mothers. Accelerometers on the tags measured their swimming speed, while cameras captured their movements from a nearly first-person perspective. The researchers managed to capture between five and 20 hours of data per calf.

Data collected from these tags will allow the team to quantify nursing and resting behavior in terms of quantity and duration, as well as the ways in which calves interact with their mothers and other whales.

The team, which also included scientists from the Goldbogen Lab at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and the Friedlander Lab at University of California, used aerial drones to measure the size and general physical health of over 120 humpback whales.

Earlier this year, MMRP scientists used a drone to capture rare footage of a humpback whale calf just minutes after birth.

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In case you’re wondering about those tags, they eventually fall off on their own. VHF and satellite tracking allows the researchers to locate the tags and scoop them out of the water.

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George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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