Istar: The Life and Death of a Fun-Loving Creature

Way back in the early 1970s, when concern for endangered animals was in its infancy, scientists began tracking humpback whales that would migrate down to the Caribbean in the wintertime and up to the coast of Maine in the summer. They didn’t have computer chips for tracking back then. But they could take photographs of individual whales. Humpback whale tails, 10 or 12 feet across, are among the biggest in the sea, and their unique colors and patterns make them as individual one from the other as fingerprints are for humans. One of the first 120 humpbacks they identified was a female about 48 feet long. They assigned her the number 0080 and named her Istar, after the Babylonian goddess of fertility named Ishtar.

Istar, as seen from the deck of a ship out whale-watching along the corridor between the Caribbean and Maine, was as playful and as unique as any of them. She could be seen in these parts in April and May on her way up to Maine and then in January and February on her way back to the Caribbean as part of the great herd. She would surface and blow water 15 feet into the sky. She would slap her tail with a great bang on the surface of the sea. She would leap up out of the water like an acrobat, sometimes rocketing her great 60,000-pound bulk as high as 20 feet up, then come down with a great crash into the waves.

There was something else that she’d do. It’s called spy-hopping. By wiggling their wide tails underwater, humpbacks can pull themselves up so their heads and flippers are out of the water. She’d look around. Then she’d squeak and grunt (in Caribbean waters) or rumble and roar (in North Atlantic waters), and then dash off to be with her pals.

Humpback whales travel in loose herds just below the surface, and during the migrating season they can travel as much as 1,000 miles a month. The full passage takes two or three months. As you may know, humpbacks also talk to one another underwater. They are the noisiest creatures in the sea. The males, but not the females, sing songs. They are long, complex, beautiful and eerie songs. Nobody knows what they are about, but it’s theorized they are mating calls, or a song of alarm to everyone during a period of danger. Humpbacks, alarmed, can travel up to 16 miles an hour. Their usual speed is about four miles an hour. Other humpbacks know about the singing, anyway.

Over the years, Istar gave birth to 11 known calves. One was named Cloud, who became the first humpback whale to be tracked from birth. She also gave birth to Scylla, a female who over the years also had 11 calves we know about.

Istar was at least five years old when she was first identified back in 1976. She was a mature female by then. A favorite of whale-watching expeditions, you can see photos of her and watch videos of her on the internet. Just search for “Istar, humpback.” You’ll see her in action.

On April 17, locals on the beach saw a dead humpback whale rolling in the surf just off Trident Lane in East Quogue. The Southampton Town Trustees were called in, and they hired a contractor with a payloader and cables to come down to the beach and see if she could be hauled up onto the sand. This humpback was about 50 feet long, about the size of a
school bus.

As tourists and locals watched, the workmen tied a cable around the base of her tail while an excavator dug a bit of a ditch into which she could be secured. By the next day, the job was done. Pictures were taken. People from the Riverhead Foundation came down and photographed her tail, then took what they needed to do a necropsy on her—her heart probably weighed over 400 pounds—and then returned to their lab. After that, the payloader operator cut a ditch further up the beach toward the dune, and by nightfall had the creature buried under a ton of sand. It would be her final resting place.

The necropsy takes a long time to get done. There are preliminary work and lab studies to send out. Photos of her tail were sent to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Perhaps it was someone they knew?

They looked through the whale catalogue they had, then phoned down to Kimberley Durham less than 20 minutes after they had seen the photos of the tail.

It was Istar.

At this writing, the results of the necropsy have not been published, but the unofficial reports say there was apparently nothing wrong with her physically, other than she had a great trauma to her head, similar to what it looks like when a whale runs into a ship.

The environmental community is in mourning over the passing of Istar. “I won’t lie. It’s not easy,” Jooke Robbins, Director of Humpback Whale Research at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, told Newsday. “Istar is just an individual known for so long, as such a productive whale. She’s a big favorite for so many people.”

Number 0080 is now under the sand in East Quogue, having completed her natural cycle. Born 1972? Died 2013 at age 41?

May she rest in peace.


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