Being the first to film the birth of a humpback whale will involve a mix of luck, skill, and a lot of water time. A combination of these paid off for our team member, Anna Garner, on February 17th, when she found a placenta freshly passed from a mother whale. Here is her account of that day on the water.
I captain a whale watching raft out of Lahaina for Pacific Whale Foundation. On the first trip of the day it was glassy calm. Around 9 am I came across a female, escort and a small calf. The mother had a noticeably hooked dorsal fin making her very distinctive, the male had a fairly blunt and squared off dorsal fin, and the calf initially appeared to have no dorsal fin at all. Once or twice I used binoculars and could see that the dorsal fin was laying completely flat to the calf’s back. I have worked on whale watching boats since 2006, and I don’t recall seeing too many dorsal fins quite as flopped over as this one. Additionally, this calf was tiny and barely breaking the surface as it came up. The general impression that it was fairly meek. The color of the calf was the same dark grey/black of the mother.
After twenty minutes or so I left. The activity level was minimal from all three whales and they were beginning to travel west. We went off to look at other whales.
Closer to 10 am I found the same mother, calf and escort. I recognized the distinctive hooked fin of the mother and the flopped dorsal of the calf. The male appeared to be the same as in the prior encounter. I never saw the tail flukes on any of them so I can’t confirm by that method that it was the same whales. However, I do feel confident that we had happened upon the same mother, calf and escort again. I didn’t see any other whales to watch so I cruised along with the trio on their left side as they traveled west. Nothing particularly dramatic happened. They swam. Sometimes a little faster, sometimes slowly, not always in a straight line but generally heading in the same direction. At one point the calf slapped it’s tail as it was swimming. I noticed that the tail had a rubbery/floppy appearance, though I wouldn’t say it looked crumpled at all. Along the same lines, I didn’t notice fetal folds, though from a solid 130 or so yards away (I checked with the rangefinder once or twice) it isn’t the sort of thing I could see. I did use the binoculars on the initial sighting, but the calf had such minimal surfacings that I didn’t see enough of the body to say if fetal folds were present. On the 10 o’clock sighting I was mostly focused on driving the boat and less on binocular usage.
Finally, something happened. It was more of the same really, a slight dive/round out from the mother combined with a swish of the tail that created a bit of a wake. The ocean rippled from the dive and I could see a white patch where the whale went down.
As I drove over I did think that it might be a placenta, due to the young nature of the calf, the fact it hadn’t been their prior, and the constant hope that I will see something unusual and exciting in the midst of a 12 hour work day. As we got closer to the spot it did look a lot like a white plastic bag. When I pulled up alongside it we could see some red attached to the white blotch. The water around the placenta had blood in it. Just a light cloud of blood that tinged the water a brownish green color, and it dissipated fairly quickly while we watched. There were lots of little pieces of white, like tissue paper floating around the main piece. We were lucky to have an OB Gyn on the boat and she was able to give me a rough idea of what we were looking at: The white section that was about four feet long and two feet wide was the amniotic sac; the placenta appeared to be ripped in half dangling off either end. There were veins running through the surface that were as big around as a finger. If you are trying to create a mental picture allow me to assist you. Envision filling a white garbage bag with raw hamburger meat and throwing it in the ocean. Done! You basically have yourself the after birth of a whale.
I’m sure everyone who will read this will have their own interpretation of the events. Here are mine:
I think that calf was born very close to the time we first saw it, but I have no idea how close we might have been to the actual event.
I think it took the mother about an hour of swimming to pass the after birth. A human can often take 10-30 minutes. An hour seems like it would make sense. Does the swimming and contraction of the tail muscles aid in expelling the after birth? Seems likely, and I am curious about that.
Based on my observations, I’d say that female passed the after birth right at the surface before the dive. I think I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I didn’t see any sharks in the area, nor did the female loiter in the area. I’ve wondered if a female might eat the after birth. Certain mammal species do, but in this instance it didn’t appear to be on the agenda.
Seems worth mentioning that I did not collect the after birth. Tempting to be sure, but I am under the impression that you need a permit to collect any part of a whale. I am not sure what happened to the after birth. Though I returned to the same general area on future trips we didn’t come across anything.
I want to take a moment to thank Annelise Cochran for being an awesome naturalist and crew member who was just as stoked to find a whale placenta. She took some great photos of the moment that can be viewed on the PWF facebook page. Also thank you to Jeanne, our passenger who shared her photos with me. Mine were worthless, and it was very kind of her to share. She is also the OB Gyn who interpreted the photos for me. It was the first placenta I’ve ever seen, and I knew none of the anatomy until she enlightened me. All 18 of my passengers were excited and good sports about hanging out with a whale placenta for 10-15 minutes of their whale watch, I’m glad I had such a nerdy, enthusiastic bunch to share the encounter with.