The outlet notes that in 2018, three fluke-free gray whales have been sighted — almost one a month. Gray whale expert Alisa Schulman-Janiger told NatGeo that the injuries don't resemble those of a killer whale attack or boat slice.
Instead, she believes them to be the result of fishing gear entanglement.
As Azula reported in its recent article about the tail-less gray whale, getting a tail wrapped in fishing lines cuts off circulation to the fluke until it's eventually severed. Because it happens over time, it doesn't come with the catastrophic blood loss that a fresh injury would have.
So, the whale can survive the initial fluke loss, but NatGeo reports that not having a powerful tail to help them swim leads to a number of issues.
The inability to dive deep enough to feed, trouble with long migrations, and not being able to protect their young are all concerns.
For whales that do keep their tails but are still stuck dragging around fishing gear, they can suffer blubber loss and swimming problems — which can lead to starvation, according to another Azula report.
Newsweek also notes that heavy gear can drown whales or lead to infection. And, that's just for the whales that survive the initial entanglement.
Some never make it out in the first place.
It's significant that so many tail-less gray whales have been spotted while other species haven't.
NOAA whale disentangler Pieter Folkens told NatGeo that gray whales aren't quite as dependent on their flukes as say powerful "lunge feeders," like humpbacks or blue whales are. So, there may have been countless whales who died before being spotted.
We're only seeing the percentage of fluke-less whales that survived the tail loss.
Even still, Newsweek warns that adapting a tail-less swimming style can eventually wear on gray whales. In NatGeo's video, you can see how much work their front flippers have to do to make up for the lack of a tail.
It's a much more strenuous way of swimming.
Three gray whales without tails in five months may not seem like a lot, but its a stark visual representation of the cost of fishing gear entanglement. Even if these whales "survive" the lines, they don't really, because dragging gear around catches up with them in the end.
Whether it just slows them down to a point of starvation, or causes them to lose an essential body part, few entangled whales are ever truly able to escape.
And Newsweek notes that entanglement rates are climbing steadily. In 2017, 31 entangled whales were spotted and an estimated 300,000 whales and dolphins die every year due to fishing gear-related injuries.