Tilly J

Tilly J the humpback whale

The Story of Tilly J

The humpback whale is the fifth largest of the world’s whales and is found in all of the oceans around the world. Scientists estimate that there are 20,000 humpback whales that spend their lives in the North Pacific. Of these 20,000 whales, there is one very special whale named Tilly J.

Our researchers sighted Tilly J on January 2, 2010 during the New Year holiday weekend. The researchers were spending their Saturday doing what they like best – working at sea, observing whales. The team was off the coast of Maui, working about four miles offshore from a surf area that’s commonly known as “Grandma’s,” located between Launiopoko Beach Park and Puamana. At that time, they came upon a group of four adult humpback whales, swimming southwest.

One of the whales in this group was Tilly J. Our researchers were able to take a beautiful photo of Tilly J’s tail flukes; it is the identification photo found on your adoption certificate.

As the researchers observed this pod, they noted that the whales came to the surface about three times. Each time, they descended for about 8 to 10 minutes each time. It is common for humpback whales to be underwater for this long. On average, adult humpback whales have a “downtime” of about 15 minutes. Humpback calves have a downtime of about 7 minutes.

Whales are air-breathing mammals just like us. They must surface to breathe. With average downtimes of about 15 minutes, it is obvious that whales are able to hold their breaths much longer than humans can. The lungs of a humpback whale are quite large; when fully stretched, they are long enough to accommodate a Cadillac stretch-limousine. Yet, their lungs are much lighter in weight than ours. A humpback whale’s lungs account for less than 1 percent of their body weight. In humans, the lungs account for 7 percent of the body weight.

The massive size of their lungs isn’t the only reason why whales have the ability to hold their breath so effectively. Marine mammals, including humpback whales, have a spongelike aggregation of convoluted bood vessels called the rete mirable around their heart and lungs. These spongelike networks are also found in the sinus cavities of the head and in sections of the whale’s pectoral fins and tail flukes. The rete mirable help conserve body heat and also help the whale store oxygen. It’s no wonder that the meaning of rete mirable is “the marvelous network.”

Humpback whales also carry a higher volume of blood in their bodies than we do. It’s believed that humpback whales have 750 gallons of blood flowing through their bodies, pumped along by the whale’s 450 pound heart! In addition, whales have high levels of red blood cells. Each of these cells is heavily loaded with hemoglobin, which binds oxygen in the blood. Whales also have high levels of myoglobin. This oxygen-binding molecule is found in muscle cells and gives the whales added ability to function during deep sea dives.

Whales are also very efficient at exhaling and inhaling. The speed of their exhalation is approximately 300 mph. In a single breath, a whale can rapidly expel 90% of the air in its lungs, replacing it with new, fresh oxygen-laden air. When the whale has finished its inhalation, it closes its blowholes tightly, to prevent water from entering its lungs.

How did Tilly J receive its name? This whale was named by the Johnston family of Grand Rapids, Michigan through the “Name Your Own Whale” option in Pacific Whale Foundation’s Adopt a Whale Program. Pam Johnston tells us that she, her husband and their children are all true ocean lovers and care greatly about all animals that live in the sea. When the children were young, the entire family loved the movie, Free Willy; it was one of their favorites!

Pam's husband gave her an adopted whale for Christmas and he let her name it. She chose “Tilly” to put a feminine spin on the name “Willy” (after the whale in Free Willy). She added “J” to signify that the whale is part of the Johnston family. Pam says this was the best Christmas present she's received in years!

Now that Pacific Whale Foundation has an identification photo of Tilly J, we will continue to watch for this fascinating whale, and we will let you know whenever Tilly is sighted.

Tilly J Sighting Map

Tilly J Sighting map