A charter boat was tracking a gray whale cruising close to the coast, at times 100 feet from shore passing the Balboa Pier on its northbound journey.
But something was different about the way this whale swam, and as the boat got closer, it became apparent the cause: The gray whale had no tail.
“It definitely had a unique swimming style because it had to compensate for not having a tail anymore,” Newport Coastal Adventure owner Ryan Lawler said of the whale spotted early Monday, March 13.
Instead of its flukes, the whale had to use its pectoral flippers – located toward the head of its body – leaning sideways to adjust its swimming.
It’s not the first time a whale without a tail has been documented. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, Director of the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, based at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, remembered being shocked when she saw her first tailless whale in Mexico back in 1985. More recently, there’s been sightings in Southern California in 2015, 2016 and 2018, she said.
Schulman-Janiger has sent footage of the latest whale spotted to experts up in Northern California and in Baja, where gray whales have spent the last few months breeding and giving birth, but it’s too soon, she said, to tell if the whale matches any previous sightings.
The whale was moving at about 3 mph, Lawler said, slightly slower than the typical 4 mph the grays move at while migrating back to their Alaskan feeding grounds, passing Southern California on their journey.
“It was not giving any indication that it was distressed, it was making do,” Lawler said. “It was doing pretty good, all things considered.”
The whale was close to shore, but that’s common behavior for the whales, which like to play around in the shallows, sometimes using the sand to scratch their bodies.
“It was actually playing around in the waves,” he said. “But the injury is obviously dramatic. We think of the whale’s tail as the iconic, primary way to get around. This one has shown it is able to adapt to life without a tail. It’s unbelievable.”
Schulman-Janiger said the life expectancy of a whale without a tail is likely bleak because of the effort it takes to swim and dive for food.
“This is what they need to propel themselves, to push themselves down to feed or move to maneuver,” she said. “It’s going to drain a lot of their energy.”
Lawler said it was likely an entanglement situation that cost the whale its tail, rather than a ship strike, because the lines could be wrapped for months or years around the tail before it actually falls off, so the animal has time to adapt to swimming without its proper use.
It’s important to document these creatures because experts can study their movements along the coast, how fast they travel and their life expectancy, Schulman-Janiger said. It also shows the human impact on the whales.
“It’s a very graphic illustration of the dangers of entanglement,” she said.
Boaters that see the whale with no tail are encouraged to document the whale and send images to Schulman-Janiger at firstname.lastname@example.org .