Voyaging with Humpbacks: A whale of a tale with Vanessa Pirotta

June 3rd, 2022

Dr Vanessa Pirotta, wildlife researcher and passionate science communicator, shares with us why she loves whales and what inspired her to write her first children's picture book, The Voyage of Whale and Calf.
Watercolour and pencil illustration of a mother and calf humpback whale, and inset, the cover of 'The Voyage of Whale and Calf'.

Join a mother and calf humpback whale in their migration from the Great Barrier Reef to Antarctica. (Illustration: Samantha Metcalfe, The Voyage of Whale and Calf)


Vanessa Pirotta out at sea, wearing a buoyancy vest and holding a bright yellow research drone.

Dr Vanessa Pirotta uses drones to research whales. (Photo: author supplied)

Studying whales can be a whale of a task! Because they are so big and spend most of their time below the waves, scientists have to get creative to study them. One of those scientists is Dr Vanessa Pirotta, who uses special waterproof drones to collect whale snot blown into the air by whales as they are swimming.

Vanessa is also the author of our picture book The Voyage of Whale and Calf, a gentle story about a newborn humpback whale migrating with his mother along the east coast of Australia. We asked Vanessa about what inspired her to share the wonders of whales with kids.


How did your interest in whales and marine biology begin?

I’ve always been interested in whales since I was a little girl. I had whale and dolphin books and watched David Attenborough documentaries from a young age. I can remember my year two school teacher telling my mum I would draw dolphins in class, so you could say marine life has been a passion for me since a very young age. This was also bizarre as I grew up on a farm outside of Canberra three hours away from the closest beach.


What inspired you to write a children’s book?

I have always wanted to share my passion through education and this is the ideal way to do so. This book is intended not only for a younger demographic but also for an older one, the parents, guardians and teachers, those who would be reading the story. This book is the perfect annual reminder and reflection of the humpback whale migration.

Thousands of whales migrate along Australia’s east and west coasts each year from their feeding waters of Antarctica to the northern warm waters to breed. Being able to share some of the science and biology around whales through this narrative is a beautiful way to document their important role in the marine environment. This is also an opportunity to highlight some of the challenges these animals face such as entanglement in fishing gear and marine pollution, just to name a few, as well as natural threats such as killer whales.

I feel it is important for young minds to connect with nature through this book whether it be at school or before bed at night.

A double-page spread from 'The Voyage of Whale and Calf'.

The story of this humpback whale migration is brought to life in the beautiful illustrations of Samantha Metcalfe.


The Voyage of Whale and Calf is about humpback whales – why did you decide to write about this species?

Humpback whales are one of the most well-known species of whale in the world and also happens to be one of my prime study species as a scientist. This was a natural fit. There was also a gap in the children’s book space for a story documenting this beautiful migration in the way we have done so. Samantha Metcalfe has done a magnificent job at bringing the story to life through her beautiful illustrations.

I also work as a naturalist on a whale watching boat and people always want to learn more when they see these beautiful animals. My book provides not only a story but an opportunity for the reader and listener to connect to these animals through the facts at the back and the additional Teacher Notes provided.

A Humpback whale jumping out of the water, it's belly pointed towards the sky. Barnacles dangle from their anchor points on the whale's chin.

A humpback whale ‘breaching’ – jumping out of the water and falling back with a huge splash. (Photo: Mike Doherty, Unsplash)


What do you hope children will take away from this book?

An appreciation of the large geographical movements these animals make each and every year. The humpback whale is the connection for us to Antarctica and the tropics. Their presence is a reflection of our ocean health and our need to do more to protect it. Most of all, I aim to promote an understanding of whale biology and ecology for all ages.


Vanessa Pirotta holding a copy of 'The Voyage of Whale and Calf'.

The Voyage of Whale and Calf is Dr Vanessa Pirotta’s first book. (Photo: Gary Heery)

Dr Vanessa Pirotta is a wildlife scientist and science communicator. Her work is primarily focused on the use of innovative technology for wildlife conservation, and she has travelled the world for humpback whale research. Visit Vanessa’s website to find out more and follow her on social media.


Samantha Metcalfe holding a copy of 'The Voyage of Whale and Calf' at a beach.

Samantha Metcalfe is the talented illustrator of The Voyage of Whale and Calf. (Photo: Grant Bennett)

Samantha Metcalfe is a natural history illustrator who finds inspiration in the unique biodiversity of the Australian bush. Working primarily in colour pencil, her realistic and detailed illustrations often focus on capturing Australia’s native flora and fauna. Check out more natural history artwork on Samantha’s website.


Perfect for curious kids aged 6–9, The Voyage of Whale and Calf is available to purchase on our website and from all good bookstores. Teacher Notes are also free to download from our website.