Out there in the ocean, keeping your children alive enough for them to reach maturity is an arduous task. Mothers have to evolve ways to protect their young against predators. It’s even more tougher now, especially since we, two-legged bros, have complicated things by changing the ocean environment drastically.
Plastic pollution, ocean acidification and global warming - this trifecta of problems have made their survival in the ocean harder than usual. To make things worse, increasing underwater noise caused by machines and the heavy ship traffic are affecting the ability of marine animals to communicate and navigate.
And yet, in the face of all these problems, it’s inspiring and heartwarming to find creatures that are undaunted by these challenges and continue to be fiercely protective of their younglings.
So to commemorate Mother’s Day this May, we are highlighting the most fiercely maternal and loving of these creatures that we share our oceans with. Here are the ocean’s most nurturing moms.
Parenting comes naturally to cetaceans. That’s probably because they’re mammals and they give birth to live pups.
Among dolphins, the bottlenose species is one of the smartest. Sociable and playful, they form close relationships with members of their pod that last decades. Such closeness is probably one of the reasons why it’s easy for them to transfer pod knowledge about survival (presumably) among themselves.
Such transference was documented with a pod in Australia. Researchers observed that the older female dolphins were able to teach their pups on how to protect their snouts while foraging for sponges. The fascinating about this is that this transfer of information only occurred between mother to daughter.
So yeah, it’s true: on land or at sea, it’s the mothers who know best.
These living fossils can scare the shit out of any diver with their rows of gnarly teeth and the fact that they can hover underwater and strike at their prey like a snake.
But you gotta give them props for being able to withstand the burden of pregnancy. Frilled sharks are able to carry a pregnancy to term for 3.5 years!
That’s no mean feat, considering that they’re not carrying eggs. Frilled sharks are one of the few shark species that give birth to live young. And since the average litter size can range from six to ten, that can be quite a heavy burden.
There’s not much population data available on these sharks, but even with worldwide decline of shark populations, it’s safe to assume that they’re also experiencing similar threats. And because of their long gestation, it could take a long time for the population to become stable.
Galapagos Sea Lions
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Among Galapagos sea lions, it takes a harem of mothers to nurture their pups. Females drop off their toddlers in a part of the beach that’s guarded by the bull. Other females then take turns watching over the pups, while the mothers presumably head off for some quality sunbathing on the rocks or diving for prized sardines in the depths.
There’s a strong maternal instinct for protection among these sea lions. There have been accounts of entire mobs of sea lions driving out a lone shark looking for a quick snack out of some reckless pups.
These days though, the enemy of pups aren’t sharks but global warming. Climate change has set off a series of linked events that have resulted in a decrease of the global sea lion population. Wayward ocean currents have resulted in the decline of sardines population which seals feed on. Rising water temperatures have caused the population explosion of harmful algal blooms which deposit their toxins on shellfishes. When sea lions eat these shellfish, they die from food poisoning because of the algal toxin.
Giant Pacific Octopus
It may look like a fearsome kraken but this deep sea dwelling bro-the world’s largest octopus species-is deeply dedicated towards ensuring the survival of its eggs.
Mommy octopus lays 100,000 eggs and she takes care of every single one of them. She caresses them to wipe off sand and algae, while also providing oxygens so that the eggs survive. The maternal instinct to brood on them is very deep so much so that she won’t even leave them to eat or have her own “me-time”.
Which is why when the eggs hatch, she dies, having expended all her energy for her clutch. We’d like to presume though that its a selfless act of maternal love. She may die but she’s happy to see her spawn survive.
For gray whales, rearing a calf is an incredible test of endurance.
Gray whales have the longest known migration of any sea mammal. They swim a round trip of 16,000 to 19,000 kilometres each year. Pregnant whales even give birth in mid-migration. And they bring their young in tow while on the route. Talk about birthing while traveling.
Mother gray whales don’t feed during their months of migration and yet they make sure that their calves are nursed. Calves drink about 50 gallons of their mother’s fat-rich milk per day; amazingly, the mothers don’t complain given how demanding that would be on their famished bodies. It’s maternal sacrifice, at its finest.
Killer whales are very matriarchal and sociable animals. Calves are born all year round and once they do, the entire pod of sisters and aunts help out the mother in taking care of the child. It’s collective effort in child-rearing, one which is bolstered by the fact that older females act as elders to the younger ones, presumably passing information for calves to survive.
In fact, some researchers believe that this is the reason why killer whales undergo menopause like our females. Pod matriarchs function as the keepers of traditional ecological knowledge which help keep the pod survive during moments of scarcity. Having older females around increases the chances of survival for their offspring.
Which goes to show, having a grandmother around is definitely good for the younglings!
With their paws, sea otters almost look like human mothers when they are caring for their young.
After giving birth on the shore, the mother immediately carries the pup to the sea, where she’ll nurse it on her chest. Until the pup learns to swim, she’ll remain on her back swimming while she grooms and gives it her constant affection.
When pups cry because they are hungry or in distress, females would coo affectionately at them until they calm down. It’s maternal nurture at its best.
Sperm whales are famous for their wide, blunt forehead which contains a substance called spermaceti.
Big as they are, they are also maternal, gentle giants. Like other fellow cetaceans, they practice communal childcare. When a mother dives deep to find food and will be sometimes away for hours, other mothers in the pod will take care of her calf. They rotate babysitting duties until the mother returns from her feeding foray.
They are also among those who nurse their young for more than two years. It’s a wonder that there’s no spoiled calves in the pod!
Another one of those bros who spoil their pups. Walruses will spend an extremely long time feeding and raising their young.
Mother walruses are very protective of their young. They will nurse their pups for an entire year, and then keep them close for two years or more. When her pup is threatened, a mother walrus will pick up her baby with her flippers and hold it to her chest, while diving into the water to escape predators.
Considering that they give birth fairly infrequently, this instinctual reaction is probably a natural adaptation to ensure the survival of their species.
In the animal world, child-rearing is mostly a single parent affair. In the case of Weddel Seals, this task is shouldered by the mother. It’s a daunting task particular since Weddel seals live in the Antarctic where the frigid cold makes the environment not ideal to raise pups.
But they get the job done. Early after birth, mothers begin teaching their pups how to survive in the cold. They teach them where to find air holes in the ice so that when they swim they won’t run out of air or get trapped by the ice. They also teach their kids how to make new holes on the ice using their teeth. In two weeks, pups will have known how to swim and survive underwater. Not bad for single parent.
Happy Mother’s Day
So as you can see, even in the ocean, there are a lot of selfless and loving mothers. The maternal instinct is as old as time itself and common to all of us living in this world.
It isn’t happenstance that we also refer to the planet as Mother Earth. For all the bad things that we have been doing to her in all these centuries since industrialization, she has remained adaptive and nurturing to us.
But time is running out. We’ve already crossed the carbon threshold and the creatures that we share the environment with are now being exterminated at an alarming rate. We’ve got to get our act together in order to prevent an ecological collapse.
Here at Wave Tribe, we’ve launched a Heal the Oceans Campaign. It aims to get people involved in something that gives back to the ocean. It’s our way of encouraging people to take an active part in ocean conservation and protection.
So if you want to make a meaningful celebration of Mother’s Day, away from the consumerist commercialism, consider participating in the campaign.
And if you’re also looking for eco-friendly surfing gear, check us out too. We are making surfing green for everyone.