Live birth of humpback whale and probable placenta of captured whale
[Editor’s note: Images of the placenta below. You have been warned. All photos courtesy Pacific Whale Foundation.]
For the first time in history, whale researchers captured video footage of a humpback whale giving birth earlier this month. On this historic day, staff at PacWhale Eco-Adventures also spotted a floating placenta from a different birth in the same waters.
It’s a strange treasure, to say the least, but the captain and crew of Ocean Explorer are no strangers to collecting placenta – in 2018, the same crew collected a placenta under the direction of the researchers of the Pacific Whale Foundation. In both cases, they reported the find to Pacific Whale Foundation chief biologist Stephanie Stack, who called NOAA Fisheries to report the collection. Parts of marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which means that collecting animal parts, even if they are discarded or moulted, is not permitted unless you do not ‘carry out your activities under authorization.
Stack and the PWF research team worked late in the evening to collect new specimens that could be used for histopathological testing, under the leadership of Dr Kristi West and Dr Ilse Silva-Krott of the University of Hawaii ‘i Stranding Laboratory, who joined the Maui team via video conference. “It was an incredible effort and represents the first known collection of many fresh and strategically located histological samples from a large whale placenta outside of the whaling industry,” West said.
The next step is to send the sample to the University of Hawai’i Stranding Lab in O’ahu to find out what species the sample came from (although it is strongly believed to be from a humpback whale) and do additional testing to learn about the health of this mother. “It’s incredibly rare to see a whale placenta, although Maui is a known birthing area for humpback whales,” Stack said. “Our goal is for these specimens to advance our knowledge of the reproductive biology of humpback whales and I am delighted to see what we are learning. “