Whale watchers off the coast of Hawaii spotted the sight of a lifetime when they came across a strange blob-like object floating in the sea.
The Pacific Whale Foundation, who operate the tour vessel, believe it to be a placenta of a humpback whale, calling it “the rarest of finds”.
We can’t decide whether to “aw” or “ew”.
Sure, it could pass for a giant plastic trash bag or even a floating bedsheet, but research biologist Stephanie Stack says it could mean big things for understanding where and when humpbacks breed.
Currently, researchers know very little about how humpbacks give birth.
“The Hawaiian Islands are known to be breeding grounds for whales,” she said in an interview with IFLScience. “We know they give birth around this area because we see a lot of young calves. We can infer they’re being born here or close to here, but the actual birthing hasn’t been documented – at least not very well – by researchers.”
The only other recorded instance of a live-birth in the Hawaiian Islands happened in 1994 when the captain of a whale-watching vessel claimed to have seen it firsthand.
He described watching an “extremely” active adult humpback whale on the surface of the water. After about eight minutes he noticed the whale resurface, this time with a small calf (approximately 3.6 meters long). Some 15 minutes later he saw a placenta surface.
At the time, researchers were able to gather samples from the placenta and use genetic testing to prove it was indeed from a humpback, according to a study published three years later in the journal Marine Mammal Science.
Details of exactly when and where the Pacific Whale Foundation discovered this placenta are “still being determined.” By the time researchers headed out the placenta had already disappeared, and they’re not quite sure what happens to it after a calf is born.
“It becomes part of the ocean,” said Stack. “We’re not sure if it breaks up and disintegrates into the ocean, if some other organism feeds on it, or a combination of those two.”
Stack says researchers weren’t able to collect any samples, but she was able to compare photos from the 1994 find to confirm the placenta likely came from a humpback.
Humpback whales leave the chilly Alaskan waters to spend the winter months in Hawaii’s warmer waters. Stack notes that while the migration begins in Nov., the whales are most active January through March.
The foundation says this discovery provides evidence that the birthing process could very well take place in Hawaii’s waters, and knowing this could help protect the species in the future.
“Knowing a little more about the process [of birthing] and what’s going on helps to protect and conserve these animals and these populations,” said Stack. “If we knew more about the timing and nature of their birth we could develop plans about their management.”