Researchers astounded as whale with a fractured spine swims 3,000 miles across the ocean

Moon, the humpback whale, has embarked on an impressive 5000 km (3000 miles) journey from Canada to Hawaii, a place believed to be her birthplace.

For over a decade, researchers have been acquainted with Moon, eagerly awaiting her annual appearance in September when she arrives on their radars to feed.

The discovery of Moon giving birth to a calf brought immense joy to the researchers. However, their happiness was overshadowed in September 2022 when they spotted Moon during her migration journey through a drone photograph. Something was different this time.

Moon was accompanied by an alarming deformity—a severely bent, S-shaped lower trunk—an indication that she had likely suffered a harsh collision with a ship during her journey.

“When we learned it was Moon, it was one of those ‘oh my God’ moments. It wasn’t just a random occurrence; she had been struck by something significant,” shared Janie Wray, CEO and lead researcher for BC Whales. “As a researcher, I have never witnessed anything like this before.”

Expectedly, Moon vanished from the researchers’ sight, given the extent of her injury. It seemed impossible for her to complete the journey without the use of her tail. Yet, to their astonishment, Moon reappeared off the coast of Maui on December 1, 2022.

Despite the odds, Moon managed to make it to Hawaii. This migratory feat was deeply ingrained in her culture and tradition. Wray explained, “Moon was likely born in Hawaii, and she just goes back every single year because that’s what her mother taught her to do. It’s a behavior passed down from mother to calf. That’s likely what drove her to travel such a distance despite her injury.”

Moon’s condition was worrisome. Upon her arrival in Hawaii, she was emaciated and covered with whale lice. It appeared that she had used up her fat reserves to survive the journey since she couldn’t feed herself along the way.

“She didn’t accumulate enough fat, still migrated down, which consumed an enormous amount of energy. With her injury, she probably couldn’t feed or gain weight. There’s no way she will be able to make the return journey because she won’t be able to refuel in those waters,” explained Jackie Hildering, humpback whale researcher and education lead for the Marine Education and Research Society.

Moon desperately needed the fat reserves to survive the winter in Hawaii since there is no food available for whales in the tropical waters. This put Moon in a dire situation, which deeply saddened the whale researchers as they knew her time was limited.

What added to the heartbreak was the researchers’ inability to euthanize Moon to alleviate her suffering. Administering toxic substances during euthanasia would poison marine animals that feed on her remains.

At this point, all they could do was wait. The researchers emphasized the importance of raising awareness among ship and boat drivers to exercise caution in the ocean. While most ship strikes are accidental, taking precautions can help prevent collisions with whales.

“The most crucial step is for everyone to slow down, especially in areas known to have whales. It’s as simple as reducing speed. We have school zones, and we need whale zones,” requested Wray.

Since December 10, 2022, Moon has vanished from the radar, and as of January 2023, there have been no sightings of her. Humpbacks are known to survive extended periods without food, leaving her exact lifespan uncertain.

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