In an incredible new video, researchers have captured the intimate relationship between a humpback whale mother and her newborn calf during the first few minutes of the young whale’s life. So fresh was the calf, blood is observed excreting from the mother while the dorsal fin and tail flukes of her calf still appear to be soft and flimsy.
The video was captured off the coast of Maui by a drone manned by researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa’s Marine Mammal Research Program. Program Director Lars Bejder was filming whales at a separate location when he received a call from a local tour guide company.
“They had just seen all this whitewater and commotion in the water and weren’t quite sure what it was and suddenly there was all this blood in the water, which made us go over there and that’s what we discovered – a newborn calf,” said Bejder in a statement.
Fresh blood from the mother indicates that Bejder arrived within minutes of her giving birth.
“I think everybody can appreciate these kinds of footages, and it brings us closer to these animals and gives us a really majestic view of these creatures,” he said. “I think it’s pretty spectacular.”
Currently, researchers know very little about how humpbacks give birth. It’s generally agreed Hawaii is a breeding ground for humpback whales, who return to the islands at the beginning of the year on their annual migration towards Alaska. But for the last 30 years, Whale Trust reports that a live birth has not been documented.
Researchers know that humpbacks have a gestation period of around 11 months and that the bond between mother and calf is unique. A 2017 study published in Functional Ecology found that the two whales whisper to one another in a quiet form of communication meant to help them avoid killer whales and sex-depraved humpback males.
As well, a few newborn behavioral traits have been observed across different pairs of humpback mothers and their calves. The two are often seen resting, typically with the mother lying in a horizontal position 4.6 to 15 meters (15 to 50 feet) below the surface with the calf snuggling in just below the mother’s chin or under her flipper. Calves also rely entirely on their mother’s milk for nourishment, so they are known to nurse for much of the first year of their life (doing so either stationary or while moving). We also know that just like other mammals, young humpbacks love to play. They have been seen mimicking their mother or male companions by displaying breaching or tail-throwing behavior.