The Fin Whale With A Broken Back

A fin whale with a severely bent spine has appeared off the coast of Valencia, Spain. The 36-tonne, 17m whale has a severe case of scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine.

Initially, the crew that spotted the whale thought it was trapped in a fishing net because of its unusual body position and difficulty swimming. A team from the Oceanographic Valencia Aquarium came to investigate. On closer inspection, the whale was not trapped. The body deformity was a permanent condition.

The team observed the whale for a number of hours, capturing footage before it swam into deeper water. They had hoped to tag the whale so they could monitor it, but its back was too injured to attach the tracker. They believe that a collision with a ship broke the whale’s back and caused the condition. Sadly, they also think that the animal will slowly starve.


A low chance of survival

Fin whales are the second largest whales on earth and feed on huge quantities of krill. To do this, they need to move through the water at pace, taking large mouthfuls of water and tiny crustaceans as they move. Then they force the water back out through the baleen plates that act like a massive sieve.

The drone footage shows that the curvature of the whale’s spine does not allow for this. The whale cannot use its tail to propel itself forward as it normally would.

“We can see from the video that the whale is already very skinny and beginning to look unhealthy,” Jens Currie from the Pacific Whale Foundation explained. “It is very unlikely it will survive.”

Baleen whales can survive for many months without eating properly, which means that injuries like this can lead to a slow death. Because the whale is struggling to swim, researchers think it will likely appear along the coastline in the coming days.

Though researchers know of a handful of whales born with scoliosis, it is incredibly rare, and most do not survive to adulthood. Nearly all adult whales with the condition are the result of collisions.

In 2019, a minke whale washed ashore in the Netherlands with this affliction. It was clear that blunt force had caused the curvature of its spine. At the end of last year, a humpback whale in the same situation turned up off the coast of Hawaii. The humpback had swum 5,000km from Canada using just its flippers.

Ship strikes kill approximately 20,000 whales annually.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.