Katarina Zimmer – May 7, 2018
Alisa Schulman-Janiger was observing gray whales off Mexico in 1985 when, instead of a majestic fluke rising from the water, she saw an ugly stump. It was a whale without a tail. “My jaw literally dropped,” she recalls. Since then, there have been occasional sightings of tailless whales in western North America. But so far this year, at least three flukeless gray whales have been spotted migrating northward along California’s coast—a spike that has Schulman-Janiger concerned for their well-being.
There are no signs these animals have suffered a killer whale attack, or a collision with a ship, she says; instead, the injuries are likely due to entanglement in fishing gear. When the marine mammals feed in areas with lots of fishing gear, debris, and other human-made objects, ropes and nets can get stuck at the base of their tail, gradually sawing off the fluke or cutting off blood circulation until it withers away. (Read how industrial fishing takes up half the planet’s oceans.)