By Pete Thomas
This week I was informed that a gray whale photographed off Southern California on Jan. 2 is the same whale I photographed last Feb. 1, and that the whale has become quite famous locally because of its distinctive appearance.
Meet "Half-Fluke," who some time ago endured a killer whale attack that resulted in the removal of a large portion of the mammal’s right tail fin.
The cetacean is easily identifiable for researchers such as Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who named Half-Fluke and keeps track of notable marine mammal sightings.
The more times Half-Fluke is documented, the more researchers are able to learn about his or her behavior – and that of migrating gray whales in general.
Last Saturday, Jan. 2, Ryan Lawler photographed Half-Fluke off Newport Beach and asked on Facebook if anyone had ever seen this whale.
Schulman-Janiger, who runs the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project in Los Angeles County, recognized the fluke.
She called to inform me that she also recognized my photo from last February off Laguna Beach, just south of Newport Beach.
Schulman-Janiger matched our photographs with two others showing Half-Fluke off Southern California during the past three years. The whale was photographed showing its fluke on Dec. 29, 2013, off San Clemente in south Orange County by Dale Frink, with Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari.
Half-Fluke also was photographed off Long Beach, in Los Angeles County, on January 10, 2015, by Greg Gentry with Harbor Breeze Cruises.
In all cases but my Feb. 1 sighting, Half-Fluke was migrating south toward Mexico. (About 21,000 gray whales migrate annually from Arctic feeding grounds to Baja California nursing and mating grounds.)
These sightings, therefore, provide a glimpse into the whales’ migration habits. Half-Fluke tends to pass through L.A. and Orange County during daylight hours between late December and mid-January.
(It’s astonishing that the whale was photographed showing its fluke in three consecutive seasons, considering how many whales pass at night or undetected during the day.)
During my Feb. 1 sighting, Half-Fluke was headed north, which is early for gray whales to be returning to home waters.
(The turnaround period off Southern California – when there are more whales traveling northbound than southbound – does not begin until mid-February.)
This could imply that Half-Fluke did not make it to the southern Baja California lagoons, the great gathering places for whales and tourists.
Whales that are not pregnant, or nursing or mating, don’t always reach the lagoons. It’s unclear whether Half-Fluke is a male or female, but the whale has not been photographed with a calf.
Beyond that, all that’s known is that Half-Fluke is a survivor.
Killer whales attack gray whales during their migration, mainly on the northbound trek, and Half-Fluke bears orca teeth marks above the missing portion of its fluke.
Hopefully its run-ins with killer whales are a thing of the past, though, because nobody wants to see a whale named No-Fluke.