Whales without tails? Increase in flukeless gray whale sightings raises alarm

Whales without tails? Increase in flukeless gray whale sightings raises alarm

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Whales without tails? Increase in flukeless gray whale sightings raises alarm

Flukeless gray whale off Newport Beach. Photo: ©Brooke Palmer/East Meets West Excursions

When Justin Crapps flew his drone over two gray whales on Wednesday off Malibu, he noticed that one of them did not have a fluke.

“I found a gray whale without a tail,” Crapps wrote in a video post on Facebook. The whale appeared to have been getting along fine, frolicking in the sandy shallows with its companion, but the sighting might be reason for alarm.

As many as five gray whales have been documented recently without flukes, apparent victims of fishing gear entanglement.

The sightings have occurred as thousands of gray whales are migrating north along the West Coast, from winter nursing lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, toward summer feeding grounds off Alaska.

Although at least two sightings might have involved the same whale – sightings have been logged between Baja California and San Francisco – this represents the highest number of flukeless gray whales documented in a single season.

Gray whale reveals what’s left of its fluke off Los Angeles Harbor. Photo: ©Joshua Meza/Harbor Breeze Cruises

“I can’t see any other reason besides entanglements,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a California-based whale researcher, citing raw wounds and scar tissue evident on the stumps of whales shown in recent photos.

The sightings do not reflect a particularly horrific entanglement season, as it’s not clear how long these whales have been without flukes. But the photos underscore the devastating nature of fishing gear after it becomes wrapped around whales.

At least one flukeless whale has died during the northbound migration: a juvenile female whose 26-foot carcass was discovered floating last week in San Francisco Bay. A necropsy, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, revealed injuries caused by entanglement, and killer whale predation.

Gray whale without a fluke dives off Oceanside. Photo: ©Oceanside Whale Watching

The whale, still partially entangled, was said by scientists to have experienced a “slow and painful death.”

The whales’ migration route runs through areas where crab and lobster traps are set on the bottom with ropes leading to surface buoys. Entanglements also have involved other whale species.

NOAA fisheries’ latest entanglement summary revealed that in 2015 and 2016, 71 entanglement cases were reported in California, Oregon and Washington, as well as in Mexico and Canada involving gear from U.S. fisheries.

About 26,000 gray whales migrate from Arctic waters to Mexico and back each year. Photo: ©Brooke Palmer/East Meets West Excursions

That represented a sharp increase from previous assessment periods. NOAA-trained large whale entanglement response teams try to rescue whales when it’s possible, but it’s a difficult and often unsuccessful process.

Of the gear identified, Crab-fishing gear has been implicated in the most entanglements, and NOAA stated that the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Workshop Group convened in 2015 in an attempt to address the issue. Crab fishermen have since responded to one recommendation, minimizing  the length of line between the main buoy and trailer buoys.

Schulman-Janiger, who runs the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project from Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, recalled single sightings of flukeless gray whales in 2015 and 2017.

This season, the first flukeless gray whale was encountered Feb. 21 off Newport Beach, headed north. The second was spotted the following week in Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, a primary nursing area, on the Baja California peninsula.

A flukeless northbound gray whale was encountered off Oceanside in San Diego County in mid-March.

On Monday, a different flukeless gray whale was spotted off Los Angeles Harbor. That’s the same whale spotted Wednesday by Lamar off northern Malibu.

If their wounds heal sufficiently, gray whales can possibly manage for indefinite periods. According to Schulman-Janiger, one flukeless female gray whale returned to Baja California nursing lagoons multiple times, with several different calves.

But since flukes are used for propulsion, and possibly to ward off enemies, the mammals are far more vulnerable without the appendages.

–Photo credits (top to bottom): ©Brooke Palmer/East Meets West Excursions, Joshua Meza/Harbor Breeze Cruises, Oceanside Whale Watching,  ©Brooke Palmer. Video credit: Justin Crapps

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