[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 that historic day, PacWhale Eco-Adventures staff also spotted a floating placenta from a different birth in the same waters.
It’s an odd treasure, to say the least, but the Ocean Explorer captain and crew are no strangers to placenta collection – in 2018, the same crew collected a placenta under the direction of Pacific Whale Foundation researchers. In both instances, they reported the find to Pacific Whale Foundation’s chief biologist Stephanie Stack who called NOAA Fisheries to report the collection. Marine mammal parts are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act which means collecting animal parts, even if discharged or sloughed, is not permitted unless you are operating under authorization.
Stack and the PWF research team worked late into the evening to collect fresh specimens that could be used for histopathological testing, under the direction of the University of Hawai‘i Stranding Laboratory’s Dr. Kristi West and Dr. Ilse Silva-Krott, who joined the Maui team via video conference. “It was an amazing 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 Laboratory on O‘ahu to find out what species the sample is from (although it is strongly suspected to be from a humpback whale) and to conduct additional testing to learn about the health of this mother. “It is incredibly rare to see a whale placenta, despite Maui being a known calving area for humpback whales,” Stack said. “Our goal is that these specimens will advance our knowledge about humpback whale reproductive biology and I am excited to see what we learn.”