By Sarah Gibbens


Chris Clifone and his crew will be actively updating Open Explorer, National Geographic's digital field journal. Learn more and follow along with their journey.

It was sudden when the humpback whale popped out of the water at the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary near a crew of filmmakers. The large adult, a female, seemed curious.

She began slapping the water with her tail, then swishing it back and forth above the water's surface. The unusual behavior went on for just over an hour. The film crew thought, and hoped, she might be having contractions. Then, as if nothing happened, it ceased. And the whale swam away.

“It just sort of happened out of the blue,” says filmmaker and National Geographic grantee Chris Clifone. “But that's exactly what we're looking for.”

Clifone had hoped it would be the moment he would finally film something no one has ever captured on camera: a humpback whale birth. Together with a crew of filmmakers, marine naturalists, and humpback whale experts, Clifone spent this past winter season trying to catch a female in the act.

Since the behavior has never been documented, Clifone's team isn't quite sure what to look for. While they weren't successful this year, they say they won't give up until they achieve their goal, even if it takes years.

“In this day and age when everything is so connected there's still something that no one knows,” says Clifone. “People are shocked that no one has ever seen a birth. They think you can go on YouTube and look it up, but it's a huge mystery.”

Sitting, Watching, Waiting

Actually getting that elusive glimpse on camera will be no small feat. Humpbacks migrate from Alaska to Hawaii during the fall. They spend their winters in these warmer waters, mating and giving birth before returning to their northern feeding grounds. All the while, humpbacks fiercely protect their calves. They may even minimize the risk to their newborns by giving birth at night or in quiet, remote waters—difficult areas to find, let alone film.

“For as well as we think we understand these animals, and as many people as there are looking at them around the world, witnessing a birth is extraordinarily challenging,” says Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist from Oregon State University and a National Geographic explorer.

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