Whale with no tail observed off Point Dume last week

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A gray whale missing its fluke, or tail, was spotted off the Malibu coast on March 14. Alison Mytych, a volunteer whale watcher, spotted the whale from her perch at the Point Dume headlands. Contributed Photo

Alison Mytych of Thousand Oaks has been Malibu’s volunteer whale watcher and citizen scientist since 2012. During the gray whales’ northward migration season each year from February to May, she spends hours every day counting the number of gray whales and their calves heading back to Alaskan waters for the summer, noting observations about their behaviors and physical conditions from various places along the Malibu coast; then sharing the data with the LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project.

Last week, she saw something highly unusual from her perch at the Point Dume headlands — a gray whale with no tail, also known as a fluke — migrating north.

She noted its conditions as follows: “The end of the peduncle (stalk), where the fluke should be, has visibly deteriorating skin with bone protruding and an area of redness. The injury is most likely from an amputation due to rope entanglement. The peduncle came up high during surfacing and slowly sunk back under the water with each dive.”

She wrote The Malibu Times that the gray whale had first been observed off the coast of Newport Beach on March 13. She then spotted it the next day as it swam past Point Dume traveling at a rate of 3 mph. The whale was sighted again on March 15 by The Condor Express in Goleta Bay near Santa Barbara. Bob Perry wrote online that the tailless whale “miraculously kept up a 3-knot pace on its northbound migration.” The average gray whale speed is 4 mph.

Mytych reported her sighting to the American Cetacean Society — Los Angeles, which takes a census count of the gray whales migrating annually. Project Director Alisa Schulman-Janiger told her the whale’s fluke was amputated most likely from entanglement with fishing gear, and that whale was moderately underweight.

“Migrating without the fluke requires an enormous amount of energy and calorie expenditure,” she commented. 

According to an account in the Orange County Register, a charter boat started tracking a gray whale cruising only about 100 feet from the shore on March 13. Something was different about the way this whale swam, and as the boat got closer, it became apparent why — the 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 told the Register, saying the whale had to use its pectoral flippers located towards the head and lean sideways to swim. “It was not giving any indication that it was distressed, it was making do. It was doing pretty good, all things considered.”

“It was actually playing around in the waves,” Lawler continued. “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 saw her first tailless whale in Mexico back in 1985. More recently, there have been sightings in Southern California in 2015, 2016, and 2018, she said. Experts are now examining photos to determine if this whale matches any previous sightings.

However, she contends that the life expectancy of a whale without a tail is likely shorter 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.”

Although too late to help this whale, the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed by President Joe Biden, includes provisions phasing out the use of destructive drift gillnets from federal waters by the swordfish industry. According to Pew Charitable Trust, “For decades, [the gillnets] have killed more dolphins, whales, and porpoises than all other West Coast fisheries combined.”

A lawsuit in 2019 over whale and sea turtle entanglements in California Dungeness crab fishery traps spurred a settlement that ended the fishing season early. The settlement led to a drop in whale entanglements.

However, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to protecting whales from fishing gear. Just a few days ago, a federal judge ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) illegally authorized a permit that allowed the incidental killing of endangered Pacific humpback whales by entanglements in sablefish pot gear off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.