Over nearly three months, navigating ocean swells and currents, vast expanses of flat water and immense pain, Moon the humpback whale traveled a 5,000 km (3,100 mile) journey from the waters of BC to Hawaii – all with a broken back.
Her crossing of the Pacific – and the likelihood that she will soon die – is a stark reminder of the growing dangers to whales along Canada’s east coast, as shipping traffic clashes with the gentle sea giants.
“Without the use of her tail, she was literally breaststroke to perform this migration. It’s absolutely amazing,” said Janie Wray, CEO and Principal Investigator for BC Whales, a non-profit organization that studies cetaceans off the west coast of the province. “But it also breaks your heart.”
Every September for the past decade, researchers at Fin Island Research Station in Gitga’at First Nations territory have spotted Moon as she appears in coastal waters to gorge on nutrient-rich krill. Two years ago, researchers were overjoyed when she appeared with a calf.
But in September, a drone photographed a humpback whale with a severe lower back injury: the entire lower part of its trunk bent into an unnatural ‘S’ shape – likely the result of a collision with a boat.
“It was one of those ‘oh my god’ moments where we found out it was Moon. It’s not like she had scoliosis or something that just fell out of the blue – she said. been hit by something pretty hard,” Wray said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life as a researcher.”
Despite the severe injury, on Dec. 1, Moon was spotted off Maui, more than 3,000 miles from where researchers first saw her injury.
Humpback whales reach nearly 50 feet in length, weigh nearly 90,000 pounds, and are known for the immense journeys they undertake each year, traveling from frigid waters near Alaska to the warm waters of Mexico and… ‘Hawaii, where they breed and give birth.
“This migration is part of their culture, their tradition. Moon was probably born in Hawaii. And she goes back every year, because that’s what her mom taught her to do,” Wray said. “It was passed from mother to calf. That’s probably what pushed her to come all this way with her injury.
Footage of Moon in Hawaiian waters, emaciated and covered in whale lice, highlights how she’s exhausted her fat stores making the trip and finds herself without a food source in tropical waters.
But Wray said there was little that could be done for the whale.
“She is in pain and yet she is still alive. We know she won’t come back to see us. It’s going to pass soon and we’re all thinking, the sooner the better,” Wray said. Attempts to euthanize Moon would require a cocktail of toxic substances – and risk poisoning marine life that would feed on his remains.
“If she was down, we could intervene. But because she’s in the ocean, and because of her size, there’s nothing we can do. And it breaks your heart to pieces even more.
Wray hopes Moon’s story can serve as a cautionary tale about the devastating effects collisions can have on whales. In recent months, humpback whales have been stranded along the British Columbia coast following collisions with boats. Deaths reflect both the success of a recovering population – and the reality that shipping traffic has not adapted to an increase in whale numbers.
“Even if you are really a focused boat driver, you might accidentally hit a humpback whale because it will come right in front of your boat. The most important thing is for everyone to slow down, especially in areas where we know there are whales. It’s easy – just slow down. We have school zones. We need whaling grounds.
But she recognized the plight of the whale, and her unlikely journey speaks to a deeper connection between humpback whales and their habitat, culture and traditions.
“Something deep inside her drove her to swim across the ocean, using only her pectoral fins,” Wray said. “Moon will never know how many people think of her. And how many people I can guarantee cried for her. I can’t even find the words to express all the honor – and respect – I have for her.