Found a Whale Placenta

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.  

  4. 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.

 

 

 

 

 Amniotic sac and placenta

Amniotic sac and placenta

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 See? Plastic bags and raw hamburger meat

See? Plastic bags and raw hamburger meat

Mariah!! Welcome to the Team!!

I am so stoked to say we have added a new team member to Kohola!  

We are so lucky to add Mariah Gill to our ranks!  Here is a little something to help you get to know our newest member!

Mariah J Gill

Community Outreach Liaison

 

Mariah loves the water. She and her sisters were essentially raised by the Pacific Ocean on the Hawaiian Island of Maui. She grew up surfing, swimming, and diving offshore from Lahaina and was taught very early on to respect and protect the ocean in all its power, beauty and fragility. After graduating from Lahainaluna High School, Mariah attended the University of Southern California where she studied environmental science with a focus on marine conservation. During her four years at USC, Mariah’s marine based research took her to Catalina Island off the coast of California, the Island of Guam, and the Republic of Palau in Micronesia. After graduating with honors and a Bachelor of Science (BS), Mariah moved further from home to attend the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies where she earned her Master’s degree in Environmental Management (MEM) with a concentration on coastal resource management. At Yale, her research took her to the US Virgin Islands, back to the Republic of Palau, and all the way to Bodø, Norway in the Arctic Circle. She also had the opportunity to work with Palau’s first UN Ambassador of the Oceans and Seas, the late Stuart Beck, as a student researcher and campaigner in New York City. At the core of her research was the question, “How do we best manage the many competing interests for coastal and marine resources in our ever-changing world to ensure a clean, bountiful and beautiful future for not only our children, but our great-great-great grandchildren?”

Since moving home to Lahaina, Mariah has worked hard to better her community and continues to seek the answer to that question. She works as an environmental consultant, teaches yoga, and volunteers as a Yale Alumni Ambassador providing students on Maui the opportunity to have face-to-face interviews to support their college applications to Yale University. She also stays busy by organizing community service events and free public yoga classes to clean up and bring peace and positivity back to our public spaces. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors hiking, swimming, surfing and diving. 

 Mariah will serve as our Community Outreach Liaison and will work to connect our team with local, cultural, and historical mana`o and stories about kohola. She is very excited about using the power of photography and film to inspire respect for the ocean and its inhabitants. She believes that conservation efforts are not successful without grassroots support, respect and innovation. Her skills as a water sportswoman will also be a welcomed addition to the team.

 

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Stepping up our free diving game

Watching the subject of your film dive majestically into the deep blue can be a beautiful sight...until you realize they are gone.  Humpback Whales have the capacity to dive to depths of around 600 feet.  Even though the Au'au channel's average depth is closer to 350 feet, we find that our whales are still able to out dive even the strongest free diver on our team.  

 

That is why we were so excited to bring out Will Trubridge and Sachiko Fukumoto as photo assistants for the day!  These two are exceptional free divers.  Will Trubridge holds multiple free diving records and can reach depths of 400 feet.  Not only were they able to assist with capturing deeper footage, but they also shared some of their free diving knowledge.

Check out our videos on Instagram accounts @kohola_film and @blue_motion_pictures.  

 

Down The Hatch, February 8th

The quest for funding continues, this time in the form of a partnership with one of our favorite hangouts in Lahaina, Down The Hatch!

On Thursday February 8th, 7pm until closing time, they will be donating proceeds from all drink and food sales to the Kohola film project!  This will help us with maintenance costs on Sylvia, fuel, and camera equipment!

Jasmine Rice will be performing, and if you haven't heard them perform, it is worth coming down just for that!  

Additionally, our very own photographer, Drew Sulock, will be on hand with some prints for sale, proceeds will also go toward funding this project!

Come join us, drink, eat and help fund the next film that will inspire generations to come!!

Welcome to the team, Sylvia!

 

I got so excited about Drew's photos that I forgot to tell you about Sylvia!!

Thanks to a grant from National Geographic Society, and donations from the public on our GoFundMe page, we were able to purchase a boat!

Our team spent hours, days even scouring craigslist for a boat that met our criteria. Meaning a boat that was functional, big enough to fit the team, and within our price range.

We eventually met Sylvia, a stately beauty who moved here from Idaho. She was accompanied by Johnson, a 40 hp engine. Drew and Anna went to inspect them and found what we'd been looking for: a functional vessel, well cared for, and ready to hit the water.

Sylvia is the name we gave her. Named after the great Sylvia Earle, a world renown marine biologist, explorer and author, just to name a few of the hats she has worn throughout her career. She is an inspiration to our entire team, and we think this is just the kind of project she might enjoy being a part of so we unofficially add her to the team!

Johnson was born in 1976 ten years after the moratorium on hunting humpback whales in the North Pacific. It the lifetime of this engine, it has unknowingly existed along side one of the greatest comeback stories of any animal. Johnson, though old, is THE CLEANEST ENGINE any of us have ever laid eyes on. I'm proud to say after a few days on the water, both Sylvia and Johnson are running well!

Thank you to all of you who helped get her on the team!

 

 

 Mike expresses our enthusiasm for owning a boat!!

Mike expresses our enthusiasm for owning a boat!!

Out on the Water? In the Water!

Using the funding we have received through National Geographic Society and our GoFundMe backers, we have been able to make it out on the water, and more importantly in the water with Humpback Whales.  

 NMFS Permit #20993

NMFS Permit #20993

As you can see, this has resulted in beautiful images captured by our lead photographer, Drew Sulock.  These peaceful looking moments belay the amount of effort it takes to get into the water with these animals.

Whales have evolved to spend a solid 90% of their life below the surface of the ocean.  This one fact allows much of their lives to be shrouded in mystery, hence the need for our project.   We have found, and sat observing, whales that have simply dove into the depths and disappeared before we had chance to jump in and film them.  We have also had fleeting encounters with some whales before they show off their skills, and out swim us.

Luckily, this is the sort of thing we saw coming.  We knew there would be challenges to observing wild animals in a habitat we weren't built to live in.  However,  we picked our team partially based on their experience observing whale behaviors.   As marine naturalists living in Hawai'i we have spent chunks of our lives spending twelve or more hours a day on the water watching humpback whales specifically.   Those years spent simply observing are paying off now, by helping us hone in on which whales we can get in the water to film with, and more importantly which of those have a likelihood of being a pregnant female.

 

 NMFS Permit #20993

NMFS Permit #20993

We will continue to come across challenges, and we will continue to overcome them.  We are currently looking for underwater scooters to borrow for the season, should that kind of speed become necessary.  We will continue to be out on the water diving, and filming.  We look forward to sharing more of our footage, and finally the first footage of a humpback whale giving birth!

 

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Our New Logo!

Everyday there is a reason to be happy!  Today the reason is that our friend Andy Sutliff made a beautiful logo for our project!!

 

 

 Kohola Logo by Andy Sutliff

Kohola Logo by Andy Sutliff

Go Fund Me

The team is assembled! Our permit (NMFS #20993) has been acquired, and we are ready to begin filming!

But wait.

There is at least one more critical piece.....oh yes, funding. The ever present need for funds to help us acquire cameras, housings, and a boat. As many people know the word 'boat' can sometimes stand for 'Break Out Another Thousand' as they always require fuel, some fixing, an array of equipment and tools to keep it up and running, not to mention the safety gear necessary for every sea going vessel.

We are working to find multiple sources of funding. We are fortunate to be supported in one way or another by a variety of groups, including National Geographic Society, Naish, Mares, Meet the Ocean, and Maui Jim. They have been generous enough to assist by providing us with gear or funding. The hunt for financial backers is never ending so we decided to open up a gofundme campaign to allow members of the public to help fund a project they believe in.

If you are reading this and you:

a) want to learn more about us

b) help fund our project

Please check out:

https://www.gofundme.com/kohola

Please know in advance that your support, and contributions to this project are deeply appreciated.

 

 The team is stoked about the free diving gear contributed by Mares!  Thank you!!

The team is stoked about the free diving gear contributed by Mares!  Thank you!!

Meet the Koholā Team!

 Chris Cilfone  director/producer/writer    

Chris Cilfone

director/producer/writer 

 

Chris Cilfone is a marine biologist/award winning filmmaker/National Geographic Explorer based on Maui, HI. 

Chris's passion for educating the public about marine conservation has taken him all over the world. He has had the opportunity to collect algae samples deep within the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska, to teach kids about the ocean in the Florida Keys,  and to present his film One Voice at Le Musée Océanographique De Monaco. 

His short films promote ocean stewardship and have been featured at film festivals throughout the world. He has won numerous awards for his work including: Ocean Geographic’s 2014 Picture of the Year: Master of Competition, Best Short Film at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monaco, and the Hero Award at the My Hero Film Festival. 


 Michael Donohoe  DOP/editor

Michael Donohoe

DOP/editor

Michael Donohoe is the Co-Investigator, DOP and Editor for Koholā.

From the time Mike left Columbus, OH in 2009, his goal was to be a wildlife conservation filmmaker. Mike has incorporated video into his work every stop along the way from his time as the Sea Turtle Intern with Conservation International, to his time as an Americorps Member at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and finally as a Naturalist in Maui.

Mike stepped away from the boats to focus on growing his knowledge and experience with filmmaking, from filming the world's largest waves, to weddings, to documentary films.

You will usually find Mike bodysurfing, freediving, or on the dance floor. He has brought the world some of the first footage of Pe’ahi from below the wave.


 Annie Goodenough  public liaison/shark spotter

Annie Goodenough

public liaison/shark spotter

This is Annie Goodenough and believe me… she is more than just good enough.

Annie is a self-proclaimed whale nerd. She is currently on her 8th season working with Humpback Whales. She has witnessed their behavior off the Stellwagen Bank in New England, the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska, and the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Maui County. She migrates with the whales and is going to be one of our scientific liaisons and advisors.

With her experience as a Naturalist and her ability to engage an audience, Annie will also act as our public liaison and manage our outreach. While our filmmakers are in the water focused on composing shots, Annie will be on the lookout for sharks or any other potential dangers.

Annie brings her upbeat and infectious attitude as well as her extensive and vast knowledge of the behavior of these whales and we are thrilled to have her on the team.


 Anna Garner  science advisor/captain

Anna Garner

science advisor/captain

Anna Garner is an overall great human being. She has lived on Maui for 7 years, taking breaks here and there to sail around the world.

She holds a 100-ton Master Captain's License and has years of experience working with institutes conducting research on humpback whales. Anna will serve as our lead scientific advisor; combining her extensive knowledge of the humpback whales with her experience and connections to top researchers around the world. She is our go to person for information, fact checking, and scientific support.

We are thrilled to have Anna join our team in the pursuit to film one of the most coveted births in the entire animal kingdom. Her knowledge will give us great insight into the mind of these whales.


 Drew Sulock  photographer/captain

Drew Sulock

photographer/captain

Drew Sulock is an award-winning photographer, Licensed Coast Guard Captain, SCUBA Instructor, and expedition leader for the National Geographic Student Expedition Program.

His work has been featured in Rock & Ice Magazine, and on NationalGeographic.com.

He holds a masters in Marine Affairs and his extensive knowledge of field research and underwater photography will give us the edge we need to capture an event that has evaded researchers, filmmakers, and conservationists for the last half century.


 Mariah J Gill  Community Outreach Liaison

Mariah J Gill

Community Outreach Liaison

Mariah loves the water. She and her sisters were essentially raised by the Pacific Ocean on the Hawaiian Island of Maui. She grew up surfing, swimming, and diving offshore from Lahaina and was taught very early on to respect and protect the ocean in all its power, beauty and fragility. After graduating from Lahainaluna High School, Mariah attended the University of Southern California where she studied environmental science with a focus on marine conservation. During her four years at USC, Mariah’s marine based research took her to Catalina Island off the coast of California, the Island of Guam, and the Republic of Palau in Micronesia. After graduating with honors and a Bachelor of Science (BS), Mariah moved further from home to attend the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies where she earned her Master’s degree in Environmental Management (MEM) with a concentration on coastal resource management. At Yale, her research took her to the US Virgin Islands, back to the Republic of Palau, and all the way to Bodø, Norway in the Arctic Circle. She also had the opportunity to work with Palau’s first UN Ambassador of the Oceans and Seas, the late Stuart Beck, as a student researcher and campaigner in New York City. At the core of her research was the question, “How do we best manage the many competing interests for coastal and marine resources in our ever-changing world to ensure a clean, bountiful and beautiful future for not only our children, but our great-great-great grandchildren?”

Since moving home to Lahaina, Mariah has worked hard to better her community and continues to seek the answer to that question. She works as an environmental consultant, teaches yoga, and volunteers as a Yale Alumni Ambassador providing students on Maui the opportunity to have face-to-face interviews to support their college applications to Yale University. She also stays busy by organizing community service events and free public yoga classes to clean up and bring peace and positivity back to our public spaces. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors hiking, swimming, surfing and diving. 

Mariah will serve as our Community Outreach Liaison and will work to connect our team with local, cultural, and historical mana`o and stories about koholā. She is very excited about using the power of photography and film to inspire respect for the ocean and its inhabitants. She believes that conservation efforts are not successful without grassroots support, respect and innovation. Her skills as a water sportswoman will also be a welcomed addition to the team.