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A Whale of a Baby’s Tail

If you are interested in purchasing an aluminum art print of the humpback birth in progress, go to Captain Steve’s Rafting’s online store:  CSR online store

On February 3, 2020, we were about an hour into our first whale watch of the day aboard the Canefire II (Figure 1), when we encountered a pod of three humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) about 3 miles off of Lahaina at about 8:30 am. What we thought was going to be a typical competition pod encounter, with a single female and her two male escorts, turned into a once in a lifetime experience observing a female humpback whale in the process of giving birth! We could clearly see a calf’s tail sticking out of the female’s genital slit.

We immediately recognized the rarity of the encounter and, amidst a full boat of passengers, worked to document the activity as thoroughly as possible. Our hour-long observation occurred with the raft stopped and engines off. My GoPro 4 on a pole, and other’s iPhone video captured both underwater and surface images and sound during the majority of the encounter. The water was very clear (visibility 100 feet) and quite calm.

The female humpback was being aggressively pursued by her primary male escort as well as a male challenger. The female whale started using our raft as a focal point, and she started circling and going under our raft. She repeated this behavior for almost an hour.  The primary escort added a lot of excitement to this encounter as he was constantly blowing streams of bubbles under her.  He also chased after the male challenger at several points.

The female stayed extremely close to the raft (at points about one-two feet away).  We think she was using a strategy we have encountered before.  When a female does not welcome this male attention, she may approach a vessel, presumably to “lose,” “shake off,” or otherwise hinder or complicate close approaches by her escorts.

At the time we departed to go pick up our next group of whale watchers, the calf’s tail was still protruding from the female, and we were unable to determine if the calf would be delivered healthy. By 10:00, when we left the dock to return, the female whale in labor was being observed by numerous other vessels, including our second vessel, Canefire. It was reported to us that the whales had stopped their repetitive circling behavior. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS) research vessel, Kohola, arrived at 10:50. At about 11:45, approximately 3¼ hours after our first encounter, and 2 ¼ hours after we had left the whales the first time, the final sighting of this female with the calf still only partially exposed was reported by the HIHWNMS’s Kohola. Operators of this vessel made the decision to cease observation of the female whale, concerned about impeding the birth as she was travelling now and had moved northwards into rougher water in the Pailolo Channel. At that time, this female no longer had any male escorts with her, and a newborn calf had not yet been seen.

The Lahaina, Maui, whale-watching community rallied together following our initial observation in an effort to locate this female whale again to determine if the birth had been successful before she returned to her feeding grounds. Community members distributed photo-ID pictures of this female’s tail so that many of us on the ocean in the Maui area could be searching for her.

On March 14, 2020, 40 days after the initial encounter described above, our company’s second vessel, Canefire encountered this female, now a mother with a calf, at approximately 3:30 pm and approximately 1 mile west of Olowalu, Maui. A comparison of the photo IDs between the first and second encounters confirmed this was the same female (via Happywhale,com, a computerized fluke-matching program by Ted Cheeseman and others). The female had a distinctive black dot in the middle of a large white section on the left side of the underside of the tail, making it relatively easy to identify her (Figure 2). Both the mother and calf appeared healthy, and the calf’s size seemed appropriate for that of a 1-2 month old.

This second sighting was even more remarkable since it occurred 3 days before Maui shut down most boating activity due to the coronavirus pandemic, after which any additional observations or re-sightings of these whales by whale-watch or other boats would not have been possible.

What did we learn from this observation?

It is known that there are only 3 published accounts of observations of humpback births, none of which included underwater footage. This partial birth observation (resulting in a successful birth) with video documentation provides several new insights into the birthing process and related social interactions in Hawaii. First, if what was observed is typical, the birthing process in humpback whales does not necessarily occur quickly, with the event occurring over at least 2 ½ to 3 hours. Hard evidence of a birth date–February 3, 2020 or soon thereafter—could also be determined, as well as that once born, the mother and calf remained in the area for at least 5 to 6 weeks.

Second, it was also clear that even female humpback whales in labor are not free from male attention and pursuit. Typically, in Hawaii, this attention and pursuit is directed both at females present to mate and mothers with newborn calves. That this female took shelter under the vessel suggests that this male attention was unwanted. While the motivation of the males cannot be known, it is possible that some of their activity was a result of stimulation from the birth activity rather than typical pursuit. It is also unclear how much of the primary escort’s behavior was in response to the nearby challenging male. Since the males left the female before she gave birth, it is unlikely that they were present to protect her or provide assistance.

If you want to watch the underwater and topside footage from this encounter, you can go to our Facebook page Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventures and find the video playlist called Partial Birth. You can hear the different, very interesting sounds that the whales are making, including social sounds common in competitive groups and a new “motorboat” sound which coincided with close passes by the female, but with the escort very close behind. You will also hear a lot of “boat chatter” as this was a very exciting encounter for all onboard.

If you would like to read more about this encounter, you can read our Short Note “Surface and Underwater Observation of a Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Birth in Progress off Lahaina, Maui, and Subsequent Encounter of the Female with a Healthy Calf” in the November 2021 issue of Aquatic Mammals 47(6). You can email us for a copy of the article.

Debbie Patton

Captain Steve’s Rafting Naturalist

Email:  captainstevesmaui@gmail.com

Figure 1 Photo by Jennifer Starr

Figure 2 Photo by Maureen Lare