A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Whale and calf in the warm waters of Hawaii, photo by Bill McDowell

When I first saw this photograph I was struck by its beauty: the blue waters with an island in the right hand corner background; the Humpback whale’s tail, its graceful curve as the ocean water cascades off of the flukes. Then I noticed the clear image of the baby in the left foreground. What a magnificent shot!

I kept looking at the photo, entranced by it’s clear delineations, especially of the calf. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a photo like this. On further study, I noticed that the right fluke of the Humpback (in reality, it would be her left fluke) is not only damaged, but half gone. When I went to sleep, my last thought was what could have caused it? In the morning, I started researching. Two hours later, I’ve learned a lot.

For the last four years, my husband and I have lived in Hawaii in the winter. (When we were younger, we’d say that when we got old, we’d do just that. One day, we looked in the mirror and decided unanimously that it was now or never. The time had come!) We love the Big Island (Hawaii) and love sighting the whales that come by from December through March. But I wasn’t extremely curious about the whales–just accepted their presence while marveling at seeing them breach and slap their tails loudly on the water’s surface.

photo courtesy of Jennifer Muscatel

I knew that the Humpbacks left Alaska in the fall, but I didn’t know their annual migration of 6,000 miles is one of the longest of any mammal’s. It takes them six to eight weeks to reach Hawaii. This is where they mate, give birth, and begin nurturing their calves. A calf spends about a year with its mother.

But seeing the injury made me curious. I now know, for instance, that it’s called lobtailing when a whale sticks their tale into the air, swings it around and slaps the water. It’s thought that lobtailing could be a form of communication or a way to loosen parasites from the tail. It’s very loud.

So back to the injury. What could cause it? In my reading, I found out that there could have been a killer whale attack, or a collision with a ship. But the number one reason for the whale tail injuries is that the whale becomes entangled in some fishing gear. Of course, I have no notion of what caused this Mama Whale’s injury. I just wish the both of them well on their long trek back to the reality of icy waters in Alaska.

  • Whalefacts.org has a lot of other great information.

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