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The Story of Tumbo – The Killer Whale with Scoliosis

March 25, 2019

When you go whale watching off the shores of Victoria and south Vancouver Island, you may get a chance to see a very unique whale named Tumbo. Tumbo or T2C2 as he is scientifically named, has scoliosis which causes his spine to curve. Because his spine is deformed, he has a very wavy dorsal fin from top to bottom. For those in the whale watching industry, Tumbo’s unfortunate condition makes him all the more lovable! We are all rooting for him when we see him.

Photo: Tumbo (T2C2) surfaces in the Juan de Fuca Strait on August 15th, 2018. Photo Credit: Orca Spirit Adventures

Tumbo is the second offspring of Tasu (T2C). Tasu has raised a big family that includes her oldest son Rocky (T2C1), Tumbo (T2C2), Lucy (T2C3) and her newest black and white bundle of joy- T2C4, born in 2017 and whose sex we do not know yet and thus has not yet been named. Tumbo was born in 2005 and it became apparent as he grew that something was wrong with his spine. As he ages, the effects of his scoliosis become more pronounced.

Photo: Members of the T2C family with T2C1 in the front. Photo Credit: Orca Spirit Adventures

For a killer whale, having a curved spine limits their speed and mobility which could affect their hunting success. But being an orca, Tumbo has the support and care of his large family. When the T2C family is perusing the Salish Sea, we will often witness Tumbo’s family hunting seals while Tumbo waits calmly a distance away. Once the family has made a kill, they swim over to Tumbo and share their spoils with him. Killer whales are known to have empathy for each other and even other species. It is no surprise that despite Tumbo’s disability, he is healthy and taken care of by his family.

The T2C family is fascinating to watch. Sometimes we come across them and there are only four whales to count, but once we recognize who they are, we look around and find Tumbo within a close range. Tumbo’s mother and siblings will often swim ahead of him, but they rarely put more than a mile between themselves and Tumbo. When they get too far, the family circles back and joins him again so that he is not alone.


(a)                                                                           (b)
Photos: (a) Matriarch T2C who was born in 1989. (b) T2C’s son T2C2 (Tumbo) who has scoliosis. Photo Credit: Orca Spirit Adventures

On one memorable whale watching trip with the T2C family, we learned that bullies exist outside of the human species. Tumbo’s mother and three siblings were about a mile away pursuing their next meal while Tumbo quietly waited for his family to come back with dinner. To our surprise two humpback whales appeared and were closing in on Tumbo. This was a very strange site as humpbacks tend to avoid Transient Killer Whales because they are their predators. They started to harass Tumbo as if they knew he could not lash back at them because of his disability. Maybe the humpbacks were taking a rare opportunity to have the upper hand with their predator. They cleared out once Tumbo’s family raced back to check on him!

Tumbo’s family line has shown other genetic issues long before he was even born. Sadly, his family was heavily affected by the live capture industry that took place off our coast in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His auntie, named T4 and later Chimo, was captured in 1970 and suffered from a disease called Chediak-Higashi Syndrome. This disease causes leucism which is a partial loss of pigmentation of the skin, hair, nails, scales, or feathers of an animal but does not affect the colour of the eyes. Chimo’s white colouration made her famous, but it also negatively affected her immune system and she died in 1972 at Sealand of the Pacific.

Photo: Chimo (T4) was a white Transient orca and aunt to Tumbo (T2C2) who had a condition known as Chediak-Higashi Syndrome that causes a partial loss of pigmentation. Chimo was captured and placed in Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada where she died at the age of four, two years after her capture.
Photo Credit: Jason Colby, University of Victoria (Featured in Eat, Spray, Love article by The Tyee)

The oddities of Tumbo’s family continued with his great uncle named T1 or Charlie Chin who had a deformed lower jaw that made it impossible for him to close his mouth properly. He escaped from an ocean holding pen along with Tumbo’s grandmother, T2 or Florencia, almost seven months after being captured thanks to someone cutting the net that held them captive. Apparently, his deformed jaw made him less appealing to buyers, which ended up being a good thing for Charlie Chin as he was able to live out the rest of his life as a wild whale.

Photo: Charlie Chin (T1), Tumbo’s (T2C2) great uncle suffered from a pronounced underbite. Photo Credit: http://www.orcahome.de/t1andt2.htm

We love to discover Tumbo and his charming family in the Salish Sea as it is always a privilege to watch one of nature’s most socially complex species that have such strong family bonds. We hope that Tumbo’s condition does not continue to get worse as he enters puberty and grows into a mature male. Whatever the effect on Tumbo, we know his family will be by his side to take care of him for as long as they can. Be sure to join us on a whale watching tour for an opportunity to meet Tumbo and the rest of the T2C family!



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