Over the course of nearly three months, navigating ocean waves and currents, vast expanses of flat water, and immense pain, Moon the humpback whale completed a 5,000 km (3,100 mile) journey from British Columbia waters to Hawaii, all with a course Backwards.
His crossing of the Pacific – and the likelihood that he will soon die – is a stark reminder of the growing dangers to whales along Canada’s east coast as shipping traffic collides with the gentle marine giants.
“Without the use of his tail, he was literally breaststroking to make that migration. It’s absolutely incredible,” said Janie Wray, managing director and lead researcher at BC Whales, a nonprofit that studies whales off the province’s west coast. “But it also breaks your heart.”
Every September for the past decade, researchers at the Fin Island Research Station in the First Nations territory of Gitga’at have spotted Moon when it appears in coastal waters to gorge on nutrient-rich krill. Two years ago, researchers were delighted when she appeared with a calf.
But in September, a drone photographed a humpback whale with a severe lower back injury: The entire lower torso bent into an unnatural “S” shape, likely the result of being hit by a boat.
“It was one of those ‘oh my gosh’ moments when we learned it was Moon. It’s not like she had scoliosis or anything that just came out of nowhere—she was hit with something pretty hard,” Wray said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life as a researcher.”
Despite her severe wound, Moon was spotted off the coast of Maui on Dec. 1, more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) from where researchers first noticed her wound.
Humpback whales reach nearly 50 feet long, weigh nearly 90,000 pounds, and are known for the immense journeys they undertake each year, traveling from the 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 he comes back every single year, because that’s what her mom taught her,” Wray said. “He was handed down from mother to son. That’s probably what prompted her to travel all that way with his injury.
Images of Moon in Hawaiian waters, emaciated and covered in whale lice, highlight the extent to which she has depleted her blubber reserves to make the journey and has no food source left in tropical waters.
But Wray said there’s little the whale can do.
“She is in pain and yet she is still alive. We know she will never come back to visit us. She soon she will pass and we all think: She the sooner she is, the better she is,” Wray said. Attempts to euthanize Moon would require a cocktail of toxic substances and risk poisoning marine life that would feed on her remains.
“If he were down, we could intervene. But because it’s in the ocean, and because of its size, there’s nothing we can do about it. And that breaks your heart even further into pieces.
Wray hopes Moon’s story will serve as a cautionary tale about the devastating effects collisions can have on whales. In recent months, humpback whales have washed ashore along the British Columbia coast due to boating strikes. The deaths reflect both the success of a recovering population and the reality that shipping has not adapted to the increase in whale numbers.
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“Even if you’re a really focused boat driver, you could accidentally hit a humpback whale because it will just come close in front of your boat. The most important thing to do 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 whale zones.”
But he acknowledged the whale’s plight, and the unlikely journey speaks to a deeper connection humpbacks have to their habitat, culture and tradition.
“Something deep inside her prompted her to swim across the ocean, using only her pectoral fins,” Wray said. “Moon will never know how many people are thinking about her. And how many people can I guarantee you cried for her. I can’t even find the words of hers to express the amount of honor – and respect – I have for her.”