Had passengers aboard the Dana Pride not seen the gray whale surface and blow a plume of mist into the air, they would not have had any idea what they were looking at.
What protruded from the surface, in hazy evening light Sunday beyond Dana Point in Southern California, resembled some sort of alien being.
But it was the gray whale's tail section, minus the fluke; one of the rarest sights the crew had ever seen. (Photos are courtesy of Dana Wharf Whale Watching; video is courtesy of Captain Dave's Dolphin & Whale Safaris.)
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The flukeless whale or, as others have described, the “whale without a tail,” was spotted a day earlier off Point Loma in San Diego, traveling alone. It was traveling solo again Sunday off Dana Point, but on Monday it was spotted off Point Vicente in Los Angeles County joining two other gray whales on the northbound migration.
Remarkably, the flukeless whale seems to be getting along fine without a broad rear fin the cetaceans use for thrust while swimming and diving, and to plane and steer.
"It just goes to show how smart these mammals are, to be able to adapt so well without a limb," said Capt. Tom White of the Dana Pride, which runs from Dana Wharf Whale Watching. "It was migrating along fine, although a little slower than what we usually see-about 3 knots instead of 4 or 5.”
“And during its deeper dives it would use its pectoral fins and swim harder on one side to spin around” in kind of a corkscrew manner. “But it did not seem to be in any trouble.”
It's believed that this young whale lost its fluke fairly recently after becoming entangled in fishing gear, which might have included ropes from crab or lobster traps, or line from gillnets.
Sadly, fishing gear represents one of the most severe hazards for gray whales during their 12,000-mile round-trip migration from Arctic feeding grounds to and from nursing and mating grounds in lagoons along Baja California, Mexico.
In a 2004 scientific paper about the phenomenon, titled "Gray Whales With Loss of Flukes Adapt and Survive," there are references to a handful of flukeless whale sightings, mostly in Baja California's lagoons.
All were believed to have lost their flukes because of fishing gear.
There was speculation, but not confirmation, that the same flukeless whale spotted in 1982 and 1983 in San Ignacio Lagoon was also spotted in 1997. That would suggest remarkable adaptability.
Another flukeless gray whale was spotted with a calf in San Ignacio Lagoon.
The paper also describes the same corkscrew or rolling behavior described by White in reference to the whale currently en route to Arctic waters, where it will feed with about 20,000 other gray whales throughout the summer and early fall.
Will it complete the trip and enjoy the feeding season, and migrate to Baja again next year? And will it someday produce offspring?
Given that its wound has all but healed, and that it does not seem slowed by its disability, it seems likely.
That is, if the whale without a tail can avoid the fishing gear.