Injured humpback whale Moon made has not been seen in weeks in Hawaiian waters
January 16, 2023, 5:00 AM HST
* Updated January 16, 8:41 AM
At the end of 2022, when the humpback whales made their annual 3,000-mile south migration to warmer Hawaiian waters, so did a female named Moon.
Researchers have been monitoring her for nearly 15 years, but this migration was different. Moon made the long journey from the feeding grounds off the coast of British Columbia to the breeding and birthing grounds in waters off Hawai’i despite being unable to use her tail to propel her 40-ton body through the sea. She had suffered a severe spinal injury thought to be from a vessel strike.
“The harrowing images of her twisted body stirred us all,” said a Facebook post by BC Whales, a nonprofit whale research organization in British Columbia. “She was likely in considerable pain, yet she migrated thousands of miles without being able to propel herself with her tail.”
The humpback whale’s story of tenacity and tragedy, sadness and anger moved people from around the world. Many were wondering what could be done to help Moon.
But since early December, when she was spotted in waters off Kona on the Big Island, nobody has seen her. Researchers suspect her suffering is over and she has died. And if she is still alive, she’s in pain and starving to death.
It’s a heartbreaking tale that sheds light on the need for more awareness in hopes of saving other humpbacks from the same painful and agonizing fate.
The Maui-based Pacific Whale Foundation has monitored Moon since 2008, the same year she was first sighted by BC Whales off of the Fin Island Whale Research Center off the northern coast of British Columbia.
CEO Janie Wray was in the boat when the whale was photographed and cataloged. Moon returned in September or October almost every year after. In 2020, she even arrived with a calf.
“We were super excited,” Wray said. “She looked great and her calf also looked very, very healthy.”
On Sept. 7, 2022, Moon was spotted by a drone as she passed by Fin Island. Researchers immediately knew her situation wasn’t good when they saw the unnatural “S” curve in Moon’s spine, from her dorsal fin to her fluke. (BC Whales operates the research station with partners World Wildlife Fund Canada and the Gitga’at Oceans and Lands Department).
“Right away, it was just one of those moments we knew she was in deep trouble,” Wray said.
When they first saw Moon in September, researchers didn’t know it was her. The whale is not tagged. The only way to identify her is by her dorsal fin or fluke. Wray thought maybe the whale suffered from severe scoliosis.
Her gut instinct, however, told her the injury was likely caused by being struck in the middle of her body by a mid-sized boat of about 30 to 60 feet moving at 20 to 30 knots. The location where the whale was sighted is frequented by vessels, including cruise ships, tugboats, barges and cargo ships.
Wray worried about the pain the animal was experiencing. And when she found out the whale was Moon, “It just broke my heart into a million pieces.”
Moon was moving extremely slowly and only stayed on the surface a short time. Wray said the whale didn’t fluke (raising her tail into the air) when she dove. Wray became concerned that Moon couldn’t dive deep enough to forage for food.
“Then she didn’t come up again, which also really was disturbing,” Wray said.
Despite her injury, Wray said Moon’s body condition at the time still looked OK. While the animal wasn’t moving very well, she had some good fat reserves.
Wray said Moon was probably struck in 2022 because she likely wouldn’t have survived with her injury had it happened in 2021. The Pacific Whale Foundation said the likely vessel strike probably occurred either while Moon was migrating to Hawai’i or while in feeding grounds off British Columbia or Alaska.
The next time Moon would be spotted was Dec. 1, 2022, half an ocean away in waters about half a mile off Olowalu, Maui, when she was documented by the Pacific Whale Foundation. This time, it was more than apparent her condition had deteriorated considerably after her journey from Canada while only being able to use her pectoral fins.
She was “literally doing the breaststroke to make that migration,” Wray told The Guardian in December.
“Her journey left her completely emaciated and covered in whale lice as testament to her severely depreciated condition,” the BC Whales Facebook post said.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary began monitoring Moon after her first Hawai‘i sighting at the beginning of December, according to the sanctuary’s natural resource specialist Ed Lyman. She was sighted again on Dec. 7 in waters off Kīhei, Maui. The sanctuary monitors humpbacks to determine and quantify the risk factors that threaten them and their habitat.
“They — the humpback whales — are our ‘canaries in the coal mine’ toward monitoring the broader marine ecosystem off the Hawaiian Islands,” Lyman said.
Two days later, and more than 60 to 80 miles away, a Hawaiian Adventures Kona crew, in communication with a Cascadia Research Collective vessel, officially documented Moon’s next sighting on Dec. 9 during a scouting trip off the West Hawai‘i coast. Moon was accompanied by a fellow mature male humpback.
“The contrast in condition between these two whales is a gut-wrenching testament to just how severe Moon’s condition is,” said Hawaiian Adventures Kona naturalist Samantha Murphy at the time.
According to a Dec. 19 Facebook post by the Pacific Whale Foundation, there have been no further sightings of Moon since she was last seen on Dec. 10 in waters off Kona.
Wray cried when she saw the pictures of the whale in Hawai‘i waters. She and other BC Whales staff have come to know Moon and the images of her skinny and broken were too much.
“We know she is suffering,” Wray said. “She’s got to be in so much agony. … I can’t even begin to fathom what she’s going through.”
Lyman also was sad when he learned about Moon’s injury.
“I have now seen five different whales with injuries like Moon’s over the years,” he said.
If she’s still out there, Moon is starving to death. There is no food source readily available for filter-feeding whales like humpbacks in Hawai‘i. In her condition, even if she could survive her injury, she likely doesn’t have enough energy reserved to survive the return trip to the feeding grounds off the British Columbia coast.
More heartbreaking is that humpbacks evolved to survive without food for long periods, meaning Moon’s agony will only continue until she dies, Wray said.
There’s no way to help her either. Euthanasia is out of the question. Wray said if Moon was put down, her body would likely float to the bottom of the ocean, becoming food for other marine animals that could also be killed by the toxic drugs.
“She was determined to get to Hawai‘i,” Wray said.
It speaks to humpbacks’ instinct and culture and the lengths they will go to follow their patterns of behavior.
“We will never truly understand the strength it took for Moon to take on what is regrettably her last journey,” BC Whales said in it’s Facebook post, “but it is on us to respect such tenacity within another species.”
Moon’s story should also put humans on notice to be more aware of these endangered marine mammals in the water. It puts the stark reality of vessel strikes on humpbacks right in front of people’s eyes.
Lyman said there were 10 confirmed whale-vessel contact reports and nine confirmed entanglement reports during the 2020-21 humpback season in Hawai‘i. However, the number of humpbacks injured each year by boats or other human interactions varies and the amount of reports the sanctuary receives each year are almost certainly an underestimate.
“These 45-foot, 40-ton animals end up being large needles in an even larger haystack, the world’s oceans,” he said.
Friend of the Sea, a program of the World Sustainability Organization, says up to 20,000 great whales, which includes humpbacks, die every year because of lethal collisions with vessels. Collisions kill 20 times more whales around the globe than whale hunting or whaling. However, most of the time, their bodies sink without leaving a trace.
Wray thinks not enough is being done to protect whales from vessel strikes. She hopes Moon’s story will be a catalyst for change.
Since Moon’s last sighting, Wray has had discussions with other organizations and officials about instituting slow down zones off the coast of British Columbia and other mitigation efforts. The response to Moon’s plight from around the world has been overwhelming, she said.
“Her injury and her death will not be in vain,” Wray said. “It’s really motivating us to really take that next step. That’s why her story is so important — it may help to protect whales in the future.”
There’s still work to be done, but Wray emphasized vessels and their operators, whether it’s for personal recreation or a large commercial ship, can make an immediate impact simply by slowing down when they see or know whales are in the waters around them.
As large as they are, humpbacks are still threatened or at risk from vessel contacts, entanglements and harassment, Lyman said.
In Hawai‘i, it is illegal to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards by any means when on or in the water, and that applies to all ocean users and vessel types. The Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources says ocean users can take steps to prevent collisions with whales by understanding the five “whats” of boating during whale season.
The Pacific Whale Foundation in its Dec. 19 Facebook post urged people to minimize the risk of vessel strikes by following best practices. You can learn more online.
Mariners and other ocean users who encounter an injured or entangled whale should not approach it and report the sighting to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Wildlife Hotline at 1-888-256-9840.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary tries to help injured whales when possible and if the situation is safe and warranted. Lyman said the on-water community plays a key role by reporting those animals to the hotline, providing initial assessment, documentation and monitoring the animals from a safe and legal distance until a trained and authorized team arrives.
“This first responder role is the foundation of our effort and is the best way to help the animals — and keep people safe,” he said.
Lyman, who is also the regional large whale entanglement response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, reiterated that engaging an injured or entangled whale, while well-intentioned, is dangerous. People have been hurt and even killed.
Wray thinks Earth would be a lonely planet without whales — they need to be protected.
“Humpback whales have biological, ecological, cultural, socio-economical value/significance,” Lyman said. “They are an integral part of a broader ecosystem. By protecting these animals, we are very likely protecting much more.”