The whale with no tail – Fluker is dying

Here is the story of Fluker, the fluke-less fin whale. This female whale became famous in the Mediterranean Sea because she lost her tail about a year ago. Through this post, we would like to raise awareness on boat strikes and drifting nets that injure/kill many whales everywhere, every year. Today, Fluker, the whale with no tail, is dying. And it is our fault as humans

Fluker, the half-fluked whale

Fluker was first sighted in 2006 in the Mediterranean Sea. The left half of its fluke was already missing. Researchers from WWF believed the whale had lost half of its tail after a boat collision or an entanglement in a drift net. Scientists collected a biopsy (a piece of skin) on Fluker to run a DNA test and found out the whale was female.

whale with no tail - Fluker
Fluker with only half of her fluke

Even though the whale could not dive as well as her peers, she could still feed and travel around the North Mediterranean Sea. In the summer of 2019, however, fishermen sent reports of a mutilated whale off the French Riviera and scientists recognized Fluker. She was now missing her entire tail. Pieces of white flesh were still attached to the wound.

From half a fluke to no fluke

whale with no tail - Fluker
Fluker photographed in 2019 after she lost her tail

Scientists started questioning how Fluker lost the remaining half of her tail. Scientists presented two hypotheses. First, drifting fishing nets could have gradually amputated the whale’s tail. Drift nets hang vertically in the water column without being anchored to the bottom. The nets are kept vertical in the water by floats attached to a rope along the top of the net and weights attached to another rope along the bottom of the net. Getting their tail caught in a drift net could result in losing it as it is impossible for whales to free themselves from drift nets.

The second hypothesis was that a boat collision was responsible for Fluker losing her tail. Boat strikes are not rare in the Mediterranean Sea. Some people tend to get too close to the whales and increase the risk of injuring them…

Scientists were pessimistic regarding the whale’s short-term survival after they found her fluke-less. But the whale survived. In November 2019, the whale could still manage to feed and move, not without difficulties though.

Fluker’s slow agony

In the last weeks, Fluker was sighted multiple times off the French Riviera. Reports in July said the animal was only 1km away from the coast and looked very skinny. Scientists confirmed that the loss of her tail prevented Fluker from diving more than three minutes at a time and feed properly.

The WWF ship and its crew went to Fluker’s location to assess her health and found her in a critical condition. The photos speak for themselves. Fluker has been starving for months and using the fat in its blubber to survive. But time is running out for the whale. As the photos below can attest: she has no fat left.

Fluker is extremely emaciated and likely has few weeks left. Photo credit: Alexis Rosenfeld

What can we do to prevent this tragedy?

I hope raising the public’s awareness of how human activities threaten whales can help create strong public opinions and convince policymakers to pass laws for speed limits in the Mediterranean Sea. WWF reported that 10 to 40 fin whales like Fluker die in the Mediterranean Sea each year, from entanglements and boat strikes. I hope Fluker’s agony will help people make the right decisions.

Drift nets were banned in Europe, but some shameless fishermen found loopholes in the legislations and keep using these dangerous nets. According to WWF, bycatch kills about 600 000 marine mammals a year, worldwide. To address this issue, countries need to enforce the ban on drift net. The retrieval of ghost nets that have been abandoned is essential as well, to make sure no other whale dies in agony.

Healthy whale vs. dying whale
A healthy fin whale (top) vs. Fluker (bottom) to illustrate the whale’s extreme emaciation.
Photo credits: Wade Hughes (top) Alexis Rosenfeld (bottom)

Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.

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