February 27, 2024

Matt Stumpf, senior liberal studies major, captured a rare moment off the coast of Dana Point, Calif. with a lucky group of whale watchers. In the open waters off the California coast, the whale watchers witnessed a gray whale, but not just that — a baby calf appeared on the whale’s back.

Stumpf was working as first mate aboard Capt. Dave’s Dana Point Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari on Jan. 2. Before departure, Stumpf and the crew had been briefed about a whale nearby.

Something was irregular about this whale; it was traveling along an inconsistent path, making it difficult for the crew to locate and get a glimpse of it before it moved to a different location.

“We had two boats there watching this whale — two of our faster boats,” Stumpf said. “They had just got on it, and it was getting really close to them.”

Abby Wolf | CBU Banner Matt Stumpf, senior liberal studies major, flies a drone while on a whale-watching trip off the Southern California coast. | Photo Courtesy of Matt Stumpf

For those aboard, there was a moment of worry and confusion when a pool of blood rose on the waters.

“We see blood in the water, and we’re like, ‘Oh,’” Stumpf said. “At least for me, I was like, ‘Something’s happening.’ Maybe it got hit by a crop. Maybe there’s a predator here that we just don’t know about.”

A few moments later, those on the boat would notice that it was far from a predator; it was a gray whale giving birth to a calf, a scene very unique to the geographic location.

Stacie Fox, a photographer working on the boat that day, knew pregnant gray whales are often in a hurry towards lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, to give birth to their calfs.

“[After seeing blood rise in the water], my immediate thought was like, ‘This is a pregnant female. She’s giving birth. That’s what’s happening,’” Fox said.

Fox’s focus has always been dolphins and whales. For her, this moment was one she never thought she would get to witness.

“[Researchers and scientists] know, in general, they go to the lagoons, but they don’t actually see them give birth or know exactly where they give birth,” Fox said.

Ordinarily, Dana Point does not see the birth of calves. Rather, births occur past Palos Verdes, an area just south of Long Beach.

“It’s just so rare to see,” Stumpf said. “We do see calfs a lot. But to see one be born — that is not something I would ever expect to see.”

Fox described the moment as “a bucket list-type thing.”

“One of the things I’ve always said I want to see is a dolphin give birth, or I want to see a whale give birth,” Fox said. “But you never expect it’s going to happen. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Stumpf said that the moment after realizing that the whale was giving birth, they saw a “floppy” head being pushed up by the mother whale. Not even the owner of the company, Captain Dave, had seen this scene in his 25 years on the water.

Stumpf sprinted into action to capture the moment.

“It kind of looked like a Pirates of the Caribbean moment for many of the crew because we were up at the top deck watching, but all our stuff is at the bottom,” Stumpf said. “So I think I literally grabbed on the ladder and swung around to go down, get my drone ready and get it up in the air.”

The video capturing the moment the gray whale gave birth has now been viewed by over a million people on YouTube, giving many the chance to witness the special encounter.

Stumpf said that the mother-calf duo is now expected to be traveling down to the west side of Baja California on their migration route.

If all goes well, it is possible that they will get the chance to see the duo again as the whales head back to Alaska later in the year, where they will spend their time feeding over the summer. As for everyone on the boat, that day was a joyous and touching moment they experienced in nature and a story they will likely tell friends and family in future years.

“I love showing that to people,” Stumpf said. “People come on our boats, and there’s nothing quite like seeing somebody’s face light up who never thought they would see like a whale in real life. And there was one, right there — so that’s really what keeps me going. Certainly, these moments of, “Oh my gosh, I get to witness this.’ That’s awesome.”

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