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Researchers are beginning to use drones to help them track and document animal behavior, and recently one scientist in Hawaii got the footage of a lifetime thanks to this technology. Lars Bejder, director of the University of Hawaii Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP), was taking drone footage of humpback whales off the coast of Maui when he got an interesting call. A local tour operator had spotted something unusual in the water and asked Bejder to check on it.
“They had just seen all this whitewater and commotion in the water and weren't quite sure what it was and suddenly there was all this blood in the water, which made us go over there and that's what we discovered—a newborn calf,” Bejder recalls. It's the closest Bejder has been to a live birth in 25 years and, thanks to the drone, he was able to record these magical first moments.
Due to the blood that the mother was still excreting, and the floppy dorsal fins and tail flukes of the calf, researchers believe the birth had happened within just twenty minutes of their arrival. As the calf is still figuring out its body, uncoordinated just as a baby would be, the mother humpback whale gently takes her child onto her back, guiding the newborn through the water. It's an incredibly touching moment between mother and child that allows us, as humans, to relate to these animals on a deeply personal level.
The gestational period for humpback whales is 11 to 12 months, with females getting pregnant every two to four years according to the National Marine Mammal Laboratory. Calves typically spend about a year with their mothers, nursing for the first five to seven months. During that period, they'll grow about 1.5 feet per month. Humpback whales come to give birth and nurse in the warm, shallow waters of Hawaii before eventually migrating back up to Alaska for summer feeding a family.
The incredibly rare footage shot by Bejder, done without disturbing the animals, is just one of the reasons that drones have become increasingly useful for studying marine life. The MMRP is dedicated to discovering how marine mammal behavior is evolving due to climate change, human behavior, and food availability. Drones allow Bejder to get up close with the animals, without influencing their behavior, in a way that wasn't previously possible. And now, thanks to this aerial footage, the world gets to see these precious early moments in the life of a new humpback whale.