UPDATE [5/28/2017, 8:27 p.m. ET]:
A report from the Mercury News notes that marine sanctuary scientists are, as of Saturday, patrolling the San Francisco and Marin coasts, looking for “hot spots” of blue whales and humpback whales, warning ships of their location to guard against the chance of another ship strike-related death.
A 79-foot blue whale carcass was found ashore Friday in Northern California. And based on findings from experts, the whale may have died after colliding with a ship.
According to the Huffington Post, the female whale was found ashore on Friday at Agate Beach, located about 13 miles north of San Francisco in Bolinas, California. The whale’s carcass was found to have major blunt-force trauma on the left side, as it remained on the beach on Saturday, with scientists from the Marine Mammal Center and California Academy of Sciences taking blood and tissue samples from the dead animal as part of an on-site necropsy.
The report noted that several people were drawn to the blue whale carcass out of curiosity, getting “emotional” at the sight of the beached whale. And even as the odor emanating from the carcass got to be “overpowering,” scientists were nonetheless piqued, wondering what could have happened to the whale as it lived its final moments.
“We rarely have the opportunity to examine blue whales due to their endangered status,” said Marine Mammal Center research assistant Barbie Halaska.
“The opportunity to perform a necropsy on a carcass in this good of condition will help contribute to our baseline data on the species.”
A fact sheet from the World Wildlife Foundation describes the blue whale as an endangered species, with the Marine Mammal Center placing their count at about 2,800 (out of about 9,000 worldwide) along the California coast. Blue whales are the largest animals on Earth and could weigh as much as 200 tons, or the equivalent weight of about 33 elephants combined. The animals typically need to consume four tons of krill per day and play a key role on top of the food chain.
As mentioned above, the sighting of the blue whale carcass in Northern California was an interesting one due to their endangered status. According to the WWF, blue whale numbers are constantly threatened by climate change, habitat loss, and other environmental factors, but could also be in danger of getting entangled in fishing gear or harmed when they collide against ships.
It was one of those boat strikes that led to the aforementioned blue whale’s death, and researchers were able to confirm that the animal suffered 10 broken ribs and 10 fractured vertebrae. It had also been a familiar sight in Northern Californian waters, having been sighted in 11 different years starting in 1999, usually off Santa Barbara.
This isn’t the first time in recent months that a blue whale carcass had been found washed up in Northern California. In October 2016, a 65-foot male blue whale was spotted at Thornton State Beach in Daly City, and the Los Angeles Times reported that the animal had also suffered blunt-forced trauma, extensive bruising along the spine area, and a fractured skull. This marked the seventh time in 40 years that a beached blue whale had washed up along the Central and Northern Californian coast.
With boat strikes posing a constant threat to whales, organizations are taking measures to prevent such incidents from happening in the future. Earlier this month, the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries imposed a voluntary policy, asking large ship operators to reduce their crafts’ speeds to about 11 mph once they enter shipping lanes pointing in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Monterey Herald quoted Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary spokeswoman Mary Jane Schramm, who said that the measures are designed to reduce the odds of whales getting harmed, but acknowledged ship strikes do pose a great danger and can happen.
“Some ship strikes are inevitable, but we may be able to minimize the harm to whales if the ships are moving more slowly.”
The Huffington Post wrote that the blue whale carcass will remain on Agate Beach, due to a reef along the beach making it extremely hard to tow the dead animal back to sea.
[Featured Image by Guiancarlo Rulli/The Marine Mammal Center/AP Images]