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Scientists are offering the everyman an opportunity to witness a breathtaking sight that up until recently had never been seen by human eyes: a humpback whale giving birth.
The extremely rare footage was captured just past sunset on March 5, 2021 far off the island of Lahaina in a popular birthing safe haven.
National Geographic on Friday teased the jaw-dropping video, which will be released — from start to finish — as part of the network’s new series “Incredible Animal Journeys” airing Nov. 19.
“We’ve been waiting for this for 25 years,” says Rachel Cartwright, a whale researcher at the Keiki Kohola Project, a Maui-based nonprofit that protects humpback whale mothers and calves. “It’s never been seen.”
Many female humpback whales travel to the Hawaiian Islands each year to give birth in warm, predator-free waters.
Although scientists camp out in the tropical waters in hopes of observing the entire birthing process, none have ever seen the entire process.
Cartwright’s team struck luck, however, when one of her research boats spotted a pod of male humpbacks swarming at the water’s surface near a female they were hoping to mate with.
A crew member dove into the water to film the mammals and noticed a small fluke peeking out from the underside of the female.
“At that point, we knew we had a possible birth,” Cartwright told National Geographic.
“We had people in the water right up until sunset,” she continued. “But the light had gone down, and we didn’t think we were going to get anything new.”
The team deployed a research drone, not realizing they were about to capture history.
The crew assumed they had collected a portion of the birth and potentially other data — until Cartwright plugged the memory card into her computer to watch the footage.
“What we saw on the footage is a big burst of blood come out,” says Cartwright. “And then, two seconds later, we finally saw a calf.”
The divers immediately jumped back into the dark water to continue filming the newborn — a male — with low-light cameras.
The beautiful footage ends with the pair lovingly nuzzling their heads together and the baby closely swimming alongside its mother’s head as it sets off on its new life.
Other than providing a glimpse into a rarely-seen natural wonder, the video offered scientists previously unknown insights into the birthing process.
The involvement of several males throughout the delivery was shocking to the team, who still don’t completely understand the reasoning behind their presence.
“There’s one beautiful sequence where the mom has got her tail up, and the little baby’s tail is sticking out, and the males go underneath blowing bubbles,” said Cartwright.
Humpbacks release strings of bubbles strategically, whether it’s hunting, courtship, or even possibly to trigger the release of feel-good hormones, such as oxytocin, as bubbles move across a whale’s skin, according to the science outlet.
“There’s a train of bubbles and the female is just swimming through it, like she’s getting a little spa or massage,” Cartwright said. “It’s really surprising to see.”