British Columbia

A humpback swam from B.C. to Hawaii with a broken spine — but won't survive the trip back, researcher says

A miraculous journey made by a severely injured humpback is still expected to end tragically, says an expert who wants the whale's story to be a warning to boaters in B.C.'s waters.

Female whale known as Moon was likely struck by vessel off B.C.'s North Coast before migration south

American researchers helped to confirm that a female humpback with a severe spinal injury recently photographed off the coast of Maui is the same whale spotted in B.C. months ago. (Pacific Whale Foundation provided by B.C. Whales)

A miraculous journey made by a severely injured humpback is still expected to end tragically, says an expert who wants the whale's story to be a warning to boaters in British Columbia's waters.

Moon, a female humpback whale well known to researchers, was spotted by a drone near the Fin Island whale research station off B.C.'s North Coast in September with a severe spinal injury, and was believed to have been struck by a vessel.

On Dec. 1, U.S. experts spotted Moon off the coast of Maui, Hawaii — and while a B.C-based scientist says she is "full of respect" for Moon for making the trip, she adds that a return journey will not be possible because of the extent of the whale's injuries.

"She definitely will not be making the migration back to B.C. in the spring. I think she will pass before that happens," said Janie Wray, CEO and lead researcher for B.C. Whales and co-founder of the North Coast Cetacean Society.

A whale fluke surfaces above the Pacific.
Moon photographed in 2020 before her tail was rendered immobile by a spinal injury believed to have been caused by a collision with a boat. (North Coast Cetacean Society submitted by B.C. Whales)

When Moon was photographed in September, she had fat reserves on her body and, while severely injured, she otherwise appeared healthy, Wray said.

According to a release from B.C. Whales, Moon's entire back, from dorsal fin to fluke, was curved in an unnatural 'S' shape that rendered her tail immobile.

Wray believes Moon swam about 4,300 kilometres to Hawaii with a broken back using only her pectoral fins.

"That journey would have taken everything out of her," said Wray.

Photographs of Moon in Hawaii show she is emaciated and covered in sea lice. Wray says the whale will never make it back to the B.C. coast, where her food sources are.

Humpbacks that migrate between B.C. and Hawaii generally feed in Canada and head south to breed and give birth.

Wray said she doesn't know what drove Moon, who gave birth in 2020, to migrate this year with such severe injuries but that she is likely following generations of tradition, or is possibly pregnant.

A whale is seen just below the surface of the ocean with a twisted tail.
Moon's injuries were first detected by scientists after she swam past the Fin Island whale research station on Sept. 7 and drone footage captured a shot of her twisted spine and paralyzed tail. (North Coast Cetacean Society submitted by B.C. Whales)

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has identified at least four humpbacks found dead on B.C. beaches or coastal areas between Oct. 12 and Nov. 21. 

DFO marine mammal co-ordinator Paul Cottrell says at least two of them had signs of "blunt-force trauma," indicating they were hit by a large object, such as a boat. 

Wray says it is hard to tell if Moon was hit by a small vessel at high speed or a large vessel moving slower, but that she was "definitely" wounded by a boat.

Not only does Wray want people to be better educated on how to share the water with whales, she says she wishes more people would report when they do hit one for research and rescue purposes. 

A humpback floating off Wales Island, north of Prince Rupert, was the first of four dead whales discovered off the coast of B.C. between Oct. 12 and Nov. 21. (Leanne Alexcee)

The rules for whale watching, according to DFO, give a minimum approach distance of 100 metres for most whales, dolphins and porpoises, to protect them from human disturbances.

Jackie Hildering, education director with the Marine Education and Research Society, says marine traffic poses a severe risk to humpbacks, who often sleep or nurse their young right below the surface of the water.

She also said because most whales sink after they die, it's tough to know how many are killed in collisions.

"How many whales are dead at the bottom of the ocean? We don't know," she said.

She said part of her organization's mission is to teach boaters how to avoid collisions with marine mammals and what to do if one occurs.

Most people in B.C. don't know they have a legal responsibility to report whale strikes and entanglements, she added. They can do so through the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336.

With files from Matt Allen

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