Whale Pictured Giving Birth at Sea in Rare Sighting

On a whale-watching cruise off the coast of South Africa, two whale research students witnessed a rare sight: a southern right whale giving birth to a healthy calf.

Cynthia Barile, a PhD student from Galway in Ireland was taking a break from a conference trip in Cape Town, South Africa, when she and a colleague saw the incredible birth. The two students are whale researchers themselves, so they were very excited about what they had seen.

Barile shared photos of the mother and her calf on social media.

"10 days from submitting my PhD I became the (probably?) co-first whale researcher to WITNESS THE BIRTH of a SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE as [Morgane Pommier] and I took a break from work to go whale watching," she said in the caption of her post.

"It was incredible indeed, a moment that will stay with us crew always, thanks for joining us," replied @SAwhalewatching, the charter boat that took them out to spot the whales.

southern right baby
The southern right whale and her calf, pictured by Barile minutes after the birth. Cynthia Barile / @SAwhalewatching

Southern right whales, which can grow to 60 feet long, were heavily hunted in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries by the whaling industry, and their global numbers are estimated to have dropped to a mere 300 individuals at one point before right whale harpooning was banned in 1935. However, illegal hunting continued to occur, with Japan, Brazil and the Soviet Union admitting to killing right whales after the ban. In 2009, there were thought to be around 13,000 southern right whales in the oceans, however, according to data from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, an Australian government scientific research agency, they are estimated to not even reach half of their pre-whaling populations by 2100.

Both southern right whales and their close relatives, northern right whales, still face some threats, mostly due to human activity. Many whales are struck and killed by ships, get entangled in fishing lines and can't communicate properly due to noise pollution from shipping lanes.

Usually found in the colder waters of the Southern Ocean, southern right whales are known to migrate north to the waters off southern Africa, among other places, during the winter months between June and October, aggregating together to mate and give birth. Females give birth to one calf every three or so years after they reach sexual maturity at 9 years old. They can live to over 70 years.

Gestation lasts 12 months, and after being born, the calves grow very quickly when feeding on their mother's fatty milk, getting to around 30 feet long in their first three or four months of life, and gaining around 130lbs per day. The high fat content of the milk is part of the reason that the females can only have a calf every few years: nursing their young takes up a huge amount of energy.

Barile didn't post photos from the birth itself out of respect for the beauty of the moment for the recovering species.

"An incredible moment, so privileged, probably one of the most emotionally-charged moments of my life. To witness a whale take its first breath, nothing in my life ever made me feel as lucky," she said in a comment under her post.