Mystery over strange whale photos off Aussie coast: 'Never seen anything like it'

Lightning strike and fishing nets are just two of the theories which have emerged about the whale's odd 'scars' covering its body.

A dark blue humpback whale with strange white markings on its back. Only its dorsal fin can be seen above the water off Port Macquarie, NSW.
A humpback whale with strange markings was photographed off the coast of Port Macquarie. Source: Jodie Lowe

Elaborate scar-like markings on the back of a whale seen in Australian waters last week have intrigued experts, with one authority on marine mammals saying: “I've never seen anything like this”.

Three images snapped by a veteran whale watcher show the white marks criss-crossing the humpback’s body as its dorsal fin breached the surface. After they were shared with a specialist marine mammal group they sparked a wave of theories as to what was responsible.

Some believed the pattern indicated scarring from a fishing net. While others appeared adamant the creature was the survivor of a lightning strike.

On Tuesday, Jodie Lowe recalled the moment she took the fascinating images off Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid-North Coast. She explained the whale was smaller than the other three it was swimming with at the time.

“We're guessing a juvenile. It looked healthy otherwise too and was swimming fine,” she told Yahoo News.

After studying the images, whale expert Dr Rob Harcourt called them “amazing” and referred them to a colleague for further evaluation.

“Very intense scars like this can come from entanglement in fishing nets – though those tend to be more linear and evenly spaced,” the Emeritus Professor of Marine Ecology at Maquarie University told Yahoo via email.

“They can also come from intraspecific fighting between males – the barnacles on the skin can cause a lot of scratching on the relatively fragile smooth skin.”

An image from behind the whale showing the white markings.
One theory was that the whale had been struck by lightning. Source: Jodie Lowe

Dr Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University’s Marine Predator Research Group said she’d be interested to find out how widespread the scarring was.

“I’ve never seen markings like this. Usually scarring from something turns whitish in colour. The pattern is irregular and looks indented – not just lightly at the surface,” she said.

“I don’t think this is anything like propeller markings. These look different.”

An image beside the whale showing the strange white markings.
Others wondered if the whale had been scarred by a net. Source: Jodie Lowe

She noted some people had speculated the marks could have been caused by a jellyfish, but she wasn’t convinced that was the case.

“Humpbacks are not like sperm whales who dive down to deep depths to feed on squid. It would be interesting to see if it is just on the dorsal/top side and possibly all around,” she said.

“Perhaps a skin condition of some sort but the reality is that myself and others are still to have discussions over what this could be.”

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