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Finally, Confirmation of a Mystery Whale from 2011!

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Thursday, July 24, 2014


Finally, Confirmation of a Mystery Whale from 2011!
The Sei whale that was a mystery for so long from 2011. Notice the bowed rostrum.  | Kera Mathes

On January 18, 2011, I was in the middle of a pod of fin whales and I remember seeing a whale that just seemed off to me. That’s the only way I could describe it. At this time I’d been whale watching for about 3 years and felt I knew fin whale behavior pretty well. This one particular whale would surface differently than the other whales, and at one point it even came up and rolled right at the boat. I was shocked. I’d never seen fin whales do that before. It wasn’t until I got home and was going through my pictures that I realized something very important was missing from that one “weird” whale…the lower right jaw wasn’t white. This is a for sure physical characteristic that would identify this whale as something as other than a fin. I knew it! But if that wasn’t a fin, then what was it?

Initially I sent the pictures off to some researchers and they thought it was just a fin and the white was just hidden in a shadow. Some other local researchers agreed that they didn’t think it was a fin, so that left two other potential whales; a sei whale or a Bryde’s whale. Both were pretty rare sightings. Finally, after two and half years, we have gotten final word. Local whale researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger, the director of the ASC-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, who initially agreed with me that this wasn’t a fin whale, followed up with two researchers from NOAA. Their conclusion? Sei whale! Finally this mystery has been solved. Alisa and I both have talked about this whale over the years, and now we can officially refer to it by its proper name.

As it turns out we recently had a sighting of another mystery whale that we think is a sei whale. However, we’ve also had some sightings of Bryde’s whales the last few weeks, including another sighing just last week! It’s actually very difficult to tell these whales apart, so I thought I’d touch a little on that.

We got a lot of great information about Bryde’s whales from Julien two weeks ago. Here is a brief summary of all of the whales

Fin Whale:

  • Up to 85 feet long and 160,000 lbs
  • Larger, falcate (curved) dorsal fin
  • Bottom right jaw is white where the bottom left is black

Sei Whale

  • Up to 60 feet and about 100,000 lbs
  • Very erect, falcate dorsal fin
  • Single ridge on the rostrum and very curved rostrum

Bryde’s Whale

  • Up to 55 ft and 90,000 lbs
  • They have three distinctive ridges on their rostrum
  • Erect, falcate dorsal fin

Just by looking at these brief descriptions you can see it’s not easy to tell them apart! I’ve put some pictures of all of the whales for you to see and compare as well as some animals from our recent sightings including blues, Risso’s and a rare booby bird. With the waters being a little warmer than normal, we’re not sure what this summer will hold. So far it’s been full of surprises and I can’t wait to see what else will come. If you’d like to try your hand at telling these whales, apart, head down to the Aquarium and come on one of our whale watches. Who knows, maybe you’ll take a picture and find us another mystery whale!

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