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Video: Whale with mangled tail traveled from Russia to Southern California

humpback whale (Christopher Michel/WikiCommons)

It was obvious from the humpback whale’s disfigured tail, this sea creature had quite a tale.

Even longtime whale watchers couldn’t believe the journey the humpback had been on — crossing some 3,800 miles from Russian waters to Southern California, despite having big chunks of its tail missing.

Newport Coastal Adventure crew first documented the unique whale a year ago off Palos Verdes, but had no idea about its travels.

But a whale’s tail is like a fingerprint, no two are the same. So when whale watchers spotted the same creature earlier this month off Catalina, they hoped images captured of the humpback would help tell its story.

Turns out, the photos were a match with images captured in 2015 off the Russian coast. A humpback from cold-water Russia making its way across the Pacific Ocean to Southern California? That’s a journey unheard of in the whale world.

“This is the first humpback I’ve ever documented that has been seen in Russia. Usually we get excited if it is documented in Monterey or Washington and then comes here,” said Mark Girardeau, a photographer who documented the whale.

Whale enthusiasts and researchers are able to identify and track a whale’s movements on a website called Happywhale, which documents mostly humpback whales but also other sea creatures to keep a global catalog of when they are photographed in the wild.

Typically, the humpbacks found off Southern California’s coast line migrate between here and Mexico, sometimes as far as Costa Rica. Those with unique tails become favorite visitors, such as Flicka, who likes to flick her tail when she dives down for food, or Chief or Snowflake. Scarlett, who had such bad lice her back turned red, was a local favorite before she died from her injuries after being entangled.

“Most of the them, we can recognize them on sight,” Girardeau said. “Each summer, there’s a few that hang out and you get to know them. This one came out of the blue.”

The crew aboard the Newport Coastal Adventure charter that spotted the whale wanted to give this unique humpback a fitting name. As they tossed around ideas, two military jets past above the boat.

So “Top Gun” seemed a fitting suggestion, especially because it seemed this whale had been in a fierce battle in its younger life.

“It had killer whale teeth marks all over it, you could tell it survived a pretty brutal attack when it was a calf,” Girardeau said.”We see a decent amount of whales with killer whale marks, this one missing most of its fluke on both sides.”

Though Top Gun was a catchy name and entered into the database, they didn’t know the whale already had an ID, based on images that had been submitted to Happywhale back in 2015 when it was spotted in Russia. The match came back Friday, Nov. 13.

Girardeau couldn’t pronounce its Russian name listed on Happywhale, but said he asked some passengers visiting from that region to translate and was told it meant Hunk or Chunk — he’s not quite sure.

The whale also has an ID number: RCHP-15RUCO1508.

The whale’s wounds look fresher in the images taken off the Russian coast, Girardeau said, leading him to think the 35-foot whale is about 6 years old, since killer whales typically attack young calves.

“It’s kind of crazy, the whale’s tail tells a story,” he said. “We know what happens in the past, it makes it extra special when we see it, we can tell a story that it survived an attack. Despite all the things whales have to contend with, trash and all the stuff humans put in the ocean, there’s still the natural predators, too.”

Girardeau said he wonders if there’s more images from the past five years that could fill in the gaps of its life.

“Where else has this whale been?” he asked, wondering if it was born in more tropical waters such as near the Philippines. “There might be someone out there holding the key to this whale. Maybe someone has a photo. It’s like a mystery — where else is this whale going?”

Having the Happywhale resource is helping to tell the story of these mysterious whales and their journeys, Girardeau said.

“It’s so cool because it makes it fun to document the whales. Before, we would just know the ones spotted locally. Now we can see when they visit other countries, now we can find out how old they are,” he said. “Even 50 years or 100 years from now, there might be a whale we’re documenting now that will get documented in the future.”


(c) 2020 The Orange County Register

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