The Loss of an Old Friend

On June 27, 2010, a right whale was found floating dead and entangled off the New Jersey coast by the U.S. Coast Guard. Over the next several days, the carcass was towed to a site in Delaware Bay where it could be fully necropsied (an animal autopsy). By the time it made it to the beach, there was very little skin left on the animal and virtually no detectable features left to help identify him to a whale in the Catalog. A skin sample was collected from him, but until recently his identity remained unknown.

Tips' left fluke tip photographed on September 9, 2009 (Amy Kennedy/New England Aquarium) and after his death on June 27, 2010 (U.S. Coast Guard).

That is until 10 days ago. While reviewing some images in preparation for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meeting, I found one image taken by the Coast Guard that showed some distinctive scars on a fluke tip that had been overlooked. I knew those scars. With a sinking feeling, I called up comparable images from the Catalog and had my suspicions confirmed - those marks belonged to an old friend- "Tips" (Catalog #1124).This match was further supported by looking at the head of the carcass with this potential ID in mind, and by looking at his sighting history which showed he had not been seen since January of 2010. The genetic sample is still being processed, but the preliminary results are also consistent with this identification.

Tips in the Bay of Fundy on September 8, 2009 (Philip Hamilton/New England Aquarium).

Tips was first seen in 1980 and his fluke tips were already scarred way back then (thus earning him his name)- so he could have been an old whale at his death. He was known for a couple of particularly interesting behaviors. He had been seen frequently close to land up in an unusual area in the Bay of Fundy- close to land and north of the usual distribution. He was seen repeatedly in this area near "The Wolves" in 1980, 1981, and 2009. He was also known for swimming circles around boats, blowing bubbles under water as he did so. Most right whales ignore boats (or avoid them)- so this behavior was unexpected. We may never know why he did this.

Tips' skeleton will be maintained as part of the Smithsonian's research collection in Suitland, MD. Every right whale death is sad, but this one is more poignant to many of us because of Tips' rich history. He will be missed.

Tips off The Wolves in August 18, 1981 (Scott Kraus/New England Aquarium).


  1. So sad, but thanks for keeping us all updated and in the loop.

  2. Thank you for your story. I'm sorry it wasn't clearly death from old age in a healthy environment free of unnatural dangers.