Twenty-five scientists and volunteers clad in thick rubber pants and boots gathered at Agate Beach in Bolinas last Saturday morning, preparing to cut up the body of a 79-foot, stranded female blue whale to determine its cause of death.
“This is an amazing opportunity,” said Barbie Halaska, a research assistant at the Marine Mammal Center. “We rarely have the chance to examine blue whales, and she is in particularly good condition.”
By 6 p.m., the center had released its preliminary findings: the whale had injuries “indicative of significant blunt force trauma that is consistent with ship strikes.” According to a press release, the whale’s entire left side showed injuries, including dead muscle and nearly a dozen broken ribs. Its spine was badly fractured and its skull showed signs of trauma. Hemorrhaging in the tissue confirmed that it had been alive at the time of the strike.
A full necropsy report will be completed in the next few weeks, after a further examination of skin tissue and blubber samples.
Due to an odd marking on her fluke—or tail—the center was also able to match the whale’s body with information in a photo database. The female was first identified off California in 1999 and was subsequently seen in 11 different years, mostly in the Santa Barbara channel. A few years ago, she was seen with a calf.
Mary Jane Schramm, a spokeswoman for the Greater Farallones Marine Sanctuary, said that it is possible the whale was with a calf when she was hit, as the calving interval for blue whales is usually two years, though it can be up to seven. The final results of the examination may be able to determine when she last birthed (it takes seven months from birth for blue whales to become independent).
“How many blue whales were impacted by this one event?” Ms. Schramm asked.
According to a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service, this whale’s population, the Eastern North Pacific stock, can only accommodate 2.3 losses to unnatural causes per year without suffering population stagnation or decline.
“It is a tragedy that this whale’s story ended due to vessel collision,” Ms. Halaska said in the press release. “These types of examinations have enabled the scientific community to make recommendations for slower shipping speeds and route changes, and hopefully that will help future whales.”
Blue whales, the largest animals on earth, were once hunted for their large quantities of bone, blubber and meat. The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling for them in 1966 in hopes of reviving populations and, in 1973, the animals came under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Today, there are an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 worldwide. Around 2,800 live off the California coast.
Yet this is only the ninth time that the Marine Mammal Center has responded to a blue whale death in its 42-year history. In general, when blue whales die—and they can live 80 years or more—their bodies sink, rather than make it to a beach.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports ship strikes as one of the leading causes of death for the species. Strikes are a particular concern in California; between 1988 and 2012, at least 30 whales—humpbacks, grays, fins and blues—have been killed or injured by ships near San Francisco. And that’s a low estimate, as the International Whaling Commission reports that the majority of strikes are likely undocumented.
In 2013, the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries contributed to an initiative along with the Coast Guard, the International Maritime Organization, Point Blue and other agencies that re-examined shipping routes leading into the San Francisco Bay. The effort ultimately led to a rerouting of shipping lanes further from the coast to avoid important feeding territories for marine mammals.
This May also marked the third season that the local marine sanctuaries instituted a voluntary policy of asking operators of large ships to slow their speed to 10 knots—about 11 mph—as they enter the shipping lanes heading toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Ship strikes are inevitable,” Ms. Schramm said. “What we need to do is minimize how many are lethal. A whale may survive 10 knots, but not 15.”
She went on: “The shipping industry has been very active and collaborative, but the fact remains that there are seven million people that live in this greater area, and that’s a lot of commerce, a lot of traffic for the wildlife to compete with. We need to figure out a way to cohabitate.”
Ms. Schramm said scientists from the Farallones and other agencies spend time monitoring the waters for signs of marine mammals, including whales—which are good indicators of the patterns of marine life—and warn incoming vessels when possible.
Ironically, a research boat was out in the water at the time the blue whale washed up in Agate Beach, though it did not report any sightings. It did report dense krill populations—the whales’ exclusive food source.
As for the body, the remains were left on the beach. By midday on Saturday, globs of blubber were rolling in the surf. “In that one body,” Ms. Halaska said, “there’s just so much food for the turkey vultures, the coyotes—and, once it’s out in the ocean, for all the bottom feeders and ocean life.”
Kent Khtikian, of Bolinas, was one of the first to spot the whale last Thursday evening, floating in the water slightly south of Agate Beach, “where it appeared round and distended,” he said.
By Friday, its body was lodged in the sand belly-up, and had attracted numerous onlookers. By this week, the smell of the decomposing whale was intense.
Bolinas resident Ariel Bishop visited the beach earlier this week, but could not make it all the way to the remains. “Even from a distance, the smell is so heavy, and it sticks with you long after you’ve walked away,” she said.
The whale also inspired an artful photograph on the cover of a Hearsay News, inside of which was a poem by Ashley Eva Brock: “I saw it last night, floating/ belly up just off shore with a/ distended gullet, filled with/ buoyant gasses. I didn’t see it/ this morning, but I think it may/ have deflated and washed/ ashore./ It’s hard to know just what to think and feel about it. Of/ course it’s sad, but it’s also the/ cycle of life. Every living thing/ dies, and now the body will/ become food for other/ creatures to feast and thrive off/ of. It all balances out./I just won’t be able to walk my/ dog on Agate for a while. One/ of her great joys in life is/ rolling in dead things.”