UPDATE, February 23, 2018:

Another fluke-less grey whale has turned up along North America's Pacific coast! Whale-watchers with East Meets West Excursions encountered the "amputee" earlier this week near Newport Beach in Southern California. It's thought that the injury was caused by entanglement in fishing gear, but the whale appears to be in stable condition for now. 

Only around 20 tailless whales have ever been documented – and tracking them over the years has proven difficult – so it's hard to give accurate odds for this one's long-term survival. But there is a chance. 

The animal was clocked swimming at between two and three miles per hour, and while this speed is slower than what we'd expect from an unimpaired individual, it does appear to be keeping up with the northern migration of his fellow whales. Locals in Mexico's Baja California reported seeing the same animal a few weeks ago at the mouth of Laguna Ojo de Liebre, a coastal salt-water lagoon nearly 500 miles south of Newport Beach.

It's hard to imagine how a whale could travel such a great distance without its "propeller", but this just shows how resilient these animals can be. 

Part of the whale's vertebral collumn was still visible when it was last seen. Image: Brooke Palmer

"A very unfortunate situation but the ability of this whale to adapt and survive such an entanglement is incredible and inspirational," says the East Meets West team. "The [animal] favoured its right side after each breath, likely dependent on its pectoral fins to steer and propel." Other fluke-less whales seen over the years have also displayed this behaviour. 

Some commenters have asked if the tail could have been lost to an orca attack, but Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a research associate with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County who has encountered several fluke-less grey whales, thinks this scenario is unlikely.

"Entanglement can cause gradual death to tissue, [and so it can be] survivable," she explains. "Catastrophic fluke loss from any other cause would result in shock and massive blood loss. I believe sudden amputation would be fatal." 

This particular injury looks quite recent – you'll notice the internal bone is still exposed in the centre of the wound – but the pinkish hue you see is likely a collection of whale lice living on the scar, not fresh tissue (learn more about these helpful hitchhikers in our previous coverage below).

If you happen to see this whale – or any other like it! – you can report the sighting here. Each record helps experts like Schulman-Janiger to better understand how these animals cope after entanglement. 


Well ... now we've seen everything. This juvenile grey whale spotted off the coast of San Diego in the US is missing a very important body part.

As you can see in the video, the whale's tail has been completely severed (fluke, I am your father) – most likely as a result of entanglement in fishing gear. Astoundingly, the amputee appears to be getting by despite the injury, and was last seen heading north alongside two adult grey whales. "It was migrating along, although a little slower than what we usually see –about three knots instead of four or five," says Dana Wharf Whale Watching captain Tom White. 

You might notice a reddish hue on the whale's stump, but fear not. Though the injury is thought to be somewhat recent, what you're seeing isn't blood (or infection for that matter). It's actually something far more benign: whale lice! They might look like bothersome parasites, but these tiny orange crustaceans actually pay rent for their ride by feeding on dead skin and damaged tissue. For a whale like our 'Flukeless', they're an asset. 

Interestingly, Flukeless isn't the only maimed grey whale meandering along North America's Pacific coast. She/he (we don't know for sure) occupies the same waters as another unbelievable success story – and this particular whale I've had the pleasure of encountering in the wild: 'Scarback'. Scarback was hit by an exploding harpoon in the early '80s, leaving a giant hole in her dorsal (top) side. But thanks to the thousands (yes, thousands ... click at your own risk) of whale lice keeping her infection-free, she has been seen cruising the coastline for three decades. "They're pretty resilient animals," says marine biologist Carrie Newell, who has been working with grey whales since 1992. "I've actually seen others with the tail injury, and surprising as it may be, they actually do quite well."

Scarback in Depoe Bay, Oregon. Image: Gary Stephenson/Screengrab from YouTube
Image: Dana Wharf Whale Watch/Facebook
Image: Dana Wharf Whale Watch/Facebook
Image: Dana Wharf Whale Watch/Facebook
Humpback Whales Bumps Related Content 2015 03 20

Top header image:Blake Matheson/Flickr