A Sad Gray Whale of a Tail

Despite the foulness riding the breeze from the south, curiosity kept us moving forward. We knew we had to be close to our target.

Our Discovery

We’re into our second year of volunteering to survey Toleak Beach for the COASST program. Some surveys turn out to be more interesting then others and this particular survey was going to be the biggest in terms of size…like 30’ of Gray Whale big!

Of course, we had no way of knowing that when we struck out on the trail. All indicators suggested that this was going to be routine. But once we hit the beach we started having hikers report the Gray Whale on the high tide line near Strawberry Point.

Our survey zone actually stops just before the point and we were debating just how far we wanted to commit to hiking beyond it. Remember, we have to hike back over and up Scotts Bluff. But as we neared the southern end of our zone we could actually smell the decay on the breeze. We decided to press on and see what we could find.

Wasn’t long before we came upon the source. This whale was in an advanced state of decomposition. I’d paced off its length as approximately 30’ but of course, there was no way to tell how much it weight when it first washed up onshore.

I’m sure this calorie-rich carcass was visited by many various scavengers when it first arrived but the only feeders that we saw currently were some maggots. There were already some bones visible in the flippers so I imagine it had been there on the beach awhile. It will be interesting to see how long the decomposition process takes over the next few months.

Gray Whales

Gray Whales are baleen whales that can reach a length of 50’ and weight as much as 36 tonnes. Living between 55 and 70 years they migrate annually up and down the west coast of North America covering 10,000 miles, the longest of any whale on Earth.

In the early summer, the whales arrive in the Arctic where they feed on small, bottom-dwelling shrimp-like creatures called amphipods. They usually stay in the north for months, bulking up for the long journey ahead of them. Once they leave the waters of the Arctic, they won’t eat again until they return. In December, the whales begin swimming south toward the coast of Mexico, where they breed and give birth.

Usually arriving in mid-February, the warm lagoons of Baja California provide protected areas for the whales to give birth. By March, the creatures start heading back up the coast, mothers with nursing calves in tow, toward the food-rich waters of the north.

 

Despite the foulness riding the breeze from the south, curiosity kept us moving forward. We knew we had to be close to our target.

Despite the foulness riding the breeze from the south, curiosity kept us moving forward. We knew we had to be close to our target.

The northward spring migration is when gray whales are at their most vulnerable. The animals have gone months since their last meal and new mothers expend a lot of energy tending to and nursing their young, who can consume up to 50 gallons a day of their mother’s milk.

The trip is always a risky endeavor but this year has been especially perilous for these cetaceans.

As of me writing this, there have been 29 Gray Whales washed up on Washington’s coast alone. If you included Canada and Mexico there have been 160 whales washed up. The whales that have washed up this year are emaciated, and scientists have also noted that whales migrating north are showing up in places they wouldn’t normally venture, such as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, or San Francisco Bay. That leads researchers to wonder if the gigantic mammals are veering off course in a desperate bid to find food far south of where they usually fatten up in the late summer months.

U.S. scientists last month declared the die-off an “unusual mortality event,” a designation that triggered additional resources to respond to the deaths and launch an investigation.

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UME (Unusual Mortality Event)

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an unusual mortality event (UME) is defined as “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands an immediate response.”

Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs is crucial because they can be indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues which may also have implications for human health. To fill this role, NOAA Fisheries established the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events in 1991. The working group was formalized in 1992 with amendments to the MMPA amendments.

The working group members are comprised of experts from scientific and academic institutions, conservation organizations, state and federal agencies who work closely with stranding networks and have a wide variety of experience in biology, toxicology, pathology, ecology, and epidemiology. Core members are appointed for three-year terms and have voting privileges. International participants and federal government representatives contribute significantly throughout the UME investigations but do not have voting rights.

A UME is determined to be “unusual” by the working group if it meets one or more of the seven criteria. All possible information is reviewed and, within 24 hours of the initial consultation, it is decided whether an event is considered a UME. The Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund is used to help the marine mammal stranding network investigate and respond to UMEs.

We’ll be heading back this month for our July survey and plan to revisit the carcass. I’ll post here what we find.

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