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A gray whale gave birth as a whale watching tour looked on

Thrilled whale watchers caught a rare glimpse into the first moments of life for a newborn gray whale.
Ted S. Warren
Thrilled whale watchers caught a rare glimpse into the first moments of life for a newborn gray whale.

For a few moments, the passengers and crew aboard Captain Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari braced themselves, thinking they were about to witness something horrible. Instead, they experienced what the tour company called "a once in a lifetime" opportunity to watch as a newborn gray whale emerged into the world.

Looking into blue-green waters just off the coast of Dana Point, Calif., people on the small boat spotted an adult gray whale splashing about. Then a pool of "something orange and red colored" appeared to spread.

"Many of us thought it may be a shark or predatory event. But no, instead of the end of life, it was the beginning of a new one!" the tour company wrote in a statement on YouTube.

"This is a first for all of us. We've never actually seen it happen," an excited Capt. Gary Brighouse can be heard saying in a video taken just moments after the birth.

A woman oohs and ahhs as the mother whale, called a cow, helps the calf take its first breaths.

"Ooh, it's so cute," the woman said. Later, when the calf pokes its fluke out from below the surface of the water, she adds, "It's so floppy."

Whale cuddles, water mammal bonding, and other explanations

Drone and cell phone video show the baby whale lying on its mother and the two nuzzling their faces together. All the while, the 24-foot long inflatable tour boats are dwarfed by size of the mother, which is somewhere between 40 to 50 feet.

At one point the mother appears to swim under one of the brightly colored boats and slightly lift it out of the water.

"I so wish that I was there," Alisa Schulman-Janiger told NPR, after a day of counting migrating gray whales a little farther north up the coast of California.

Schulman-Janiger runs the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society's Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. From December through much of May, the group keeps track of the massive mammals as they make the journey from their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas near Alaska to the warm water lagoons in Baja California, Mexico.

Schulman-Janiger said she has watched the video several times. As a researcher who has studied whales for decades, she said these early moments in the calf's life show how it bonds with its mother.

"The mom is holding the calf up, supporting it so the calf can rest and actually helping it be able to take a breath."

Part of the reason for that is that gray whale calves are born with soft flukes that take about 24 hours to become rigid. Until then, they can't really swim forward so they need to be guided and helped along.

And when the calf swims up toward its mother's face to rub itself against her, Schulman-Janiger said that's typical mammal behavior. "Land mammals smell each other but ocean mammals can't smell so a lot of their skin (is) very sensitive. That's why there's a lot of tactile contact and touching going on."

A boon for whale research

The various clips are a tremendous windfall for gray whale researchers, Schulman-Janiger said, marveling that the "astounding" footage was captured at all.

"The fact that you can see the blood pool means the calf must have just come out," she said. "That isn't something that is seen very often or documented often. In fact, I don't know if there's any other video footage of something like that."

She added: "It's extraordinarily rare and really, really special for people to be able to share in those first few moments of a young whale's life. A whale could get to be 50, 60, 80 years old. And this is just the beginning of that calf life."

Another reason it is extraordinary? The gray whale population is in sharp decline.

In 2016, NOAA Fisheries, estimated there were nearly 27,000 eastern North Pacific gray whales. But the latest figures tabulated in the winter of 2021/2022 placed the estimated population at 16,650. The drop has been declared an Unusual Mortality Event.

Schulman-Janiger said a a large percentage of the whales that appear to be dying off are adult females. "And nobody knows why," she said.

In all of her years out in the field, Schulman-Janiger admitted she's never witnessed an actual birth. In fact, almost exactly nine years ago to the day, she was lucky enough to spot a wrinkly newborn calf less than an hour old. She has photos and a description here.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.