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Humpback Whale ‘Shocks’ Scientists By Swimming 3,000-Miles With A Severely Injured Spine

Written by: Stephanie Maguire
Stephanie Maguire is a writer for She loves animals so much that she started her own pet-sitting business in 2017, and goes out of her way to point-out and pet every single dog she sees.Read more
| Published on March 17, 2023

Humpback whales have one of the longest migrations of any mammal on the planet. Some species travel an incredible 5,000 miles from where they feed to where they breed. Fin Island research station scientists have been following Moon, the humpback whale, for 15 years. They usually spot her in September as she makes her annual 3,000-mile journey from Canada’s frigid waters down to Hawaii’s lukewarm waters.

Hawaii is where they believe Moon was born, and she returns there every year. It is an amazing tradition that is passed down from mother to calf. In fact, researchers were thrilled to see that she had given birth to her own calf in 2020.


But when they spotted Moon in September of 2022 via drone photograph, they were shocked by what they saw. Moon had an unnatural “S-shape” in her spine from her dorsal fin all the way to her fluke.

“It was one of those ‘oh my God’ moments when we learned it was Moon. It’s not like she has scoliosis or something that just came out of the blue. She was struck by something pretty hard. I’ve never seen anything like that in my lifetime as a researcher,” said Janie Wray, CEO and lead researcher for BC Whales.

Scientists say her spine was so severely bent because she was most likely hit by a ship during her migration journey. Researchers believed that without the use of her tail, it would be absolutely impossible to swim so far. But to their surprise, they spotted her off the coast of Maui on December first. Somehow, despite her severe spinal injury, she made it all the way back to Hawaii. 

Due to her awful injury, she was probably in substantial pain, yet she still managed to migrate thousands of miles without being able to propel herself with her tail. She literally used only her pectoral fins to do the breaststroke. It was simultaneously incredibly amazing and absolutely heartbreaking.

“This migration is part of their culture, their tradition. Moon was probably born in Hawaii. And she just goes back every single year, because that’s what her mother taught her to do. It’s been passed down from mother to calf. That’s likely what drove her to travel all that way with her injury,” said Janie.

While she was somehow able to make the journey, she arrived emaciated and covered in whale lice. She had spent a substantial amount of her fat reserves during the journey, and now there is no food source for her in the tropical waters. 

This heartbreaking story is a stark reminder of the devastating effects collisions can have on whales. This is especially essential to remember in areas where we know whales are most likely to be. The most important thing for everyone to do is to slow down and stay vigilant. 

Featured Image: YouTube