The mother humpback with her newborn calf off the coast of Maui, Hawaii.
GIF: Credit: NOAA Permit 20311-01/University of Hawaii/Marine Mammal Research Program/Gizmodo

Remarkable new video from Hawaii shows a humpback whale calf swimming through Pacific waters just minutes after being born.

For marine biologist Lars Bejder, it was all about being at the right place at the right time.

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Last month, Bejder, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, was filming humpback whales off the coast of Maui when he received an urgent call from a local tour operator, who was concerned after seeing frantic splashing and commotion in the water, followed by the appearance of blood. Bejder rushed over and soon spotted the freshly born humpback calf.

“We immediately got the drone out,” Bejder told Gizmodo. “It was amazing to see this new calf—this very uncoordinated calf—so soon after it was born.”

Credit: NOAA Permit 20311-01/University of Hawaii/Marine Mammal Research Program

Indeed, all the signs to pointed to a birth within the last 20 minutes or so. Its dorsal fin and tail flukes appeared soft and flimsy, and its mother was still excreting some blood, according to a press release. What’s more, the mother occasionally propped the newborn on her back for support. The sex of the newborn could not be determined because it never flipped over, said Bejder. Based on preliminary observations, the calf looked normal and healthy, he added.

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“We’ve certainly seen humpback calves that are a few days or weeks old, and this calf looked like a miniature version of those,” Bejder said. The marine biologist has studied whales for 25 years, but “this is the closest I’ve ever been to an actual birth,” he said, adding that the footage wouldn’t have been possible without the help and support of the local community.

Working under a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) permit, Bejder and his MMRP colleagues were working in the area to quantify body mass and body size of humpbacks in this breeding ground. The teams uses drones to measure length and width of the whales at millimeter precision. Bejder will continue to study the body condition of these whales, and he’s hoping to meet the same mom and calf at some future point.

Three years ago, humpbacks in the region were downlisted in terms of their status, no longer appearing on the endangered list. They’re still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but for some unknown reason, their numbers have declined over the past three years, explained Bejder.

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“Their numbers are a bit low, and we’re not sure what’s going on,” he told Gizmodo. “A bunch of groups are now tackling this question, trying to figure out if it’s just a little bump or if there’s something more serious going on.” To which he added: “It’s a wait-and-see situation—we’re trying to see if this is a natural fluctuation or a sign of something worse.”

Hopefully it’s nothing. For now, let’s try not to worry and celebrate this adorable new calf. Welcome to the world!

[University of Hawaii News]

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