Full humpback birth witnessed by scientists for first time ever. See the stunning video. (2024)

As the sun dipped below the horizon on March 5, 2021, far off Lahaina, Hawaii, scientists and National Geographic filmmakers witnessed a scene no one has ever seen before—the full birth of a humpback whale.

“We’ve been waiting for this for 25 years,” says Rachel Cartwright, a whale researcher at the Keiki Kohola Project, a Maui-based nonprofit that protects humpback whale mothers and calves. “It’s never been seen.”

Each year, many females travel to the Hawaiian Islands to give birth in warm, predator-free waters. Scientists such as Cartwright study such animals closely, identifying them by unique patterns on the underside of their tails, or flukes. (Read about a humpback whale named Frodo, who swam halfway around the world.)

Yet one key observation has been missing: A female giving birth. In Maui, and worldwide, scientists have only observed a handful of females with calf flukes protruding—a sign labor has begun—but not the entire birth itself.

That’s why the 2021 event was so meaningful—the first complete humpback whale birth seen by scientists, start to finish, most of which is featured in the new National Geographic series Incredible Animal Journeys, premiering November 19 on National Geographic and streaming the next day on Disney+ and Hulu.

“I’ve gotten lots of phone calls from people who say they’ve seen a whale being born,” says Stephanie Stack, chief research biologist at the Pacific Whale Foundation in Maui, who was not involved with the discovery. “And often when we dig into it a little bit, it’s not quite the case. It’s often just a whale resting or a whale hanging out with its calf.

“So I was really surprised when I watched the footage. That’s amazing!”

A whale of a birth

It all started at about 3 p.m., when one of Cartwright’s research boats spotted a pod of male humpbacks congregating at the water’s surface near another whale, likely a female they were hoping to mate with. “We see that quite a bit in Hawaii,” she says.

After a while, a crew member entered the water to film the animals—and that’s when they saw a small fluke peeking out from the female.

“At that point, we knew we had a possible birth,” says Cartwright, who quickly joined the action far offshore. But because the days are very short in Hawaii in late winter, she knew time was running out.

“We had people in the water right up until sunset,” she says. “But the light had gone down, and we didn’t think we were going to get anything new.” (See an extremely rare sperm whale birth caught on camera.)

Fortunately, Cartwright deployed one of her research drones, not realizing she was about to film the first complete humpback birth. “At that moment, it was just—get the data, land the drone without dropping it in the water,” she laughs. Only when she plugged the memory card into her computer did she realize its significance.

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“What we saw on the footage is a big burst of blood come out,” says Cartwright. “And then, two seconds later, we finally saw a calf.” The divers then got back in the water to gather more footage of the newborn, a male, with low-light cameras.

"We knew this was a rare opportunity to capture a precious moment and then the team worked tirelessly to follow and film the group," field director Paul Satchell said by email.

Stack cautioned it’s illegal to swim with whales anywhere in the United States, and that those that do so—scientists and documentary filmmakers—have to acquire permits and adhere to strict guidelines.

A spa day for mom?

In addition to the miracle of birth, several other aspects of the fateful day have given scientists plenty of new information to chew on. For starters, “the collection of males around the female is not something we would have guessed at all,” says Cartwright, and their presence remains a mystery. (Related:“Do whales have culture? Humpbacks pass on behavior.”)

“There’s one beautiful sequence where the mom has got her tail up, and the little baby’s tail is sticking out, and the males go underneath blowing bubbles,” says Cartwright.

Humpbacks release strings of bubbles strategically, whether it’s hunting, courtship, or even possibly to trigger the release of feel-good hormones, such as oxytocin, as bubbles move across a whale’s skin. (Watch: “Whales team up in amazing bubble-net hunt.”)

“There’s a train of bubbles and the female is just swimming through it, like she’s getting a little spa or massage,” says Cartwright. “It’s really surprising to see.”

‘More fragile than we might realize’

As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, widespread hunting had placed humpback whales on a collision course with extinction. Then, a global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1985 brought about one of the greatest comeback stories in conservation history. (Related:“Big fish: A brief history of whaling.”)

Even so, “things are much more fragile than we might realize,” says Cartwright.

For instance, a strange, warm water “blob” hovering around the Gulf of Alaska and then moving down the Pacific Coast over the course of six years, killed large amounts of krill, a small crustacean that North Pacific humpbacks rely on as food. (Related:“Mysterious ocean ‘blob’ may have led to fewer baby whales.”)

Similarly, the area where Cartwright witnessed the whale birth is off Lahaina, which experienced the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history in the summer of 2023. Lahaina Harbor, where the scientists would launch their boats, is gone. And while cleanup efforts have reduced the amount of ash and debris washing into the ocean, Cartwright worries mother humpbacks and their calves may still be affected when the winter rains come.

“Fingers crossed they’ll be alright,” she says. “For the island, just to see the whales come back, I think would lift everybody’s spirits.”

Full humpback birth witnessed by scientists for first time ever. See the stunning video. (2024)


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