It all started around 3 p.m., when one of Cartwright’s research vessels spotted a pod of male humpbacks congregating on the water’s surface near another whale, probably a female with whom they were hoping to mate. “We see it a lot in Hawaii,” he says.
After a while, a crew member entered the water to film the animals, and that was when they saw a small caudal fin of the female appear.
“At that point, we knew we had a possible birth,” says Cartwright, who quickly joined the action far offshore. But since the days are so short in Hawaii in late winter, he knew time was running out.
“We had people in the water until sunset,” he says. “But the light had gone down and we didn’t think we were going to get anything new.”
Fortunately, Cartwright deployed one of his research drones, not realizing he was about to film the first full birth of a humpback. “At that point, he just had to get the data and land the drone without dropping it in the water,” he laughs. Only when he connected the memory card to the computer did he realize the discovery.
“What we saw on the footage was a huge gush of blood,” Cartwright says. “And then, two seconds later, we finally saw a baby.” The divers then returned to the water to collect more images of the newborn, a male, with low-light cameras.
“We knew it was a unique opportunity to capture a precious moment and so the team worked tirelessly to track and film the group,” field director Paul Satchell says by email.
Stack warned that it is illegal to swim with whales anywhere in the United States, and that those who do it (scientists and documentary filmmakers) have to obtain permits and follow strict rules.
In addition to the birth miracle, there are other aspects of the historic day that have provided scientists with much new information. For starters, “the concentration of males around the female is not something we would have imagined at all,” says Cartwright, and their presence remains a mystery.
“There’s a lovely sequence where the mother has her tail up and the little baby’s tail is sticking out, and the males are passing underneath blowing bubbles,” says Cartwright.
Humpback whales release strings of bubbles strategically, whether to hunt, court, or even trigger the release of feel-good hormones such as oxytocin as the bubbles move across the whale’s skin.
“There’s a bubble train and the female swims through it, like she’s getting a little spa or massage,” says Cartwright; “It’s really amazing to see.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, widespread hunting of humpback whales put them in danger of extinction. In 1985, a global moratorium on commercial whaling sparked one of the largest recoveries in conservation history.
Still, “things are much more fragile than we think,” Cartwright says.
For example, a strange “blob” of warm water that hovered around the Gulf of Alaska and then moved up the Pacific coast over the course of six years wiped out large quantities of krill, a small crustacean on which humpback whales depend. North Pacific as food.
Likewise, the area where Cartwright witnessed the whale’s birth is located across from Lahaina, which experienced the deadliest wildfires in state history in the summer of 2023. The port of Lahaina, from which the ships of the scientists, has disappeared. And although cleanup efforts have reduced the amount of ash and debris reaching the ocean, Cartwright worries that humpback mothers and their babies could be affected when winter rains arrive.
“Fingers crossed they recover,” he says. “For the island, I think it would lift everyone’s spirits just to see the whales return.”