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Decomposed Whale Beaches on Oregon Coast, Officials Puzzle Over Sharks


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Secrets of the Season

Decomposed Whale Beaches on Oregon Coast, Officials Puzzle Over Sharks

Disgusting sight and smell: the corpse of the whale is so decomposed its unidentifiable

Photos by Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium

(Seaside, Oregon) – Staff at the Seaside Aquarium have had their hands full this past week with having to respond to various creatures both large and small washing up on north Oregon coast beaches, sometimes with pungent, even hideous results. Baby sharks, a badly decomposed porpoise, a baby seal and a horribly decayed whale have all washed up around that area in the last few days, causing a variety of problems and investigations.

At the same time, aquarium staff have been keeping a closer eye on what seems to be a growing situation on the entire Oregon coast: an unusually high number of dead sharks washing up on shore. This has also yielded a startling discovery.

The most high profile situation involves one very nasty decomposed whale that washed up Tuesday on Del Rey Beach – just north of Gearhart.

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It was so badly decomposed that staff from the Seaside Aquarium had few clues from which to identify it. Manager Keith Chandler guessed it might be a gray whale, although Deb Duffield from the Marine Mammal Stranding Network headquarters at Portland State University said she thought it might be a humpback whale. She received the photos via email from Tiffany Boothe at the Seaside Aquarium.

It was about ten feet long and thoroughly unrecognizable, Chandler said.

He said it could be the dead whale that was seen last week floating about two miles offshore from Depoe Bay.

Shark carcass found last year by Seaside Aquarium (photo Tiffany Boothe)

The whale was extremely bad smelling, said Chandler. “It’s just a hunk of rotting flesh,” he said. “It’s just a blob. The skin is so bad and slimy it looks like fur.”

They could not get near it on Tuesday because of high tide. “The last thing you want is that decomposed thing to roll over on you or just touch you, when it’s being knocked around by the tide,” said Boothe.

Boothe and Chandler will attempt to collect flesh and blubber samples from the creature at low tide on Wednesday morning. There is a possibility representatives from the Marine Mammal Stranding Network will come out to investigate as well.

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There is no word how it may be disposed of.

Aquarium staff also found another dead shark Tuesday morning – the sixth in five weeks. There were eight reports of dead sharks on the north coast in the four-week period between July 20 and August 23. Two more have been reported washing up since then, including the one Tuesday, also found on Del Rey Beach.

Another was reported Friday at Sunset Beach, about 3 feet, eight inches long. Both of the more recent sharks were salmon sharks.

Salmon shark found by aquarium in the past

“It’s the most we’ve ever seen in such a short period of time,” Boothe said. “Usually, when they die, they sink to the bottom. But the dead ones have been washing up on the beaches.”

Why or how so many have been showing up on shore is a mystery, but Boothe and others at the aquarium believe it probably has to do with warmer waters this year bringing in more tuna. That, in turn, will attract more fish-eaters.

Three of the sharks have wound up in a freezer at the aquarium, awaiting donation to local schools for science labs.

Originally, it was believed that four salmon sharks and four soupin sharks were discovered in various areas, from Rockaway Beach up to southern Washington.

Sunset Beach, where a live shark was seen on Friday

The first shark showed up in Rockaway Beach earlier this summer, causing quite a media stir, since it was still alive and in a pool of blood. It later disappeared.

Boothe recently discovered that shark turned out to be Great White, while it was previously thought to be a salmon shark. Boothe sent images of that shark to John Rupp of the Point Defiance Aquarium in Tacoma recently – a nationally recognized expert on sharks - and he confirmed it was a Great White.

Staff at the aquarium theorized that this year’s warmer waters have brought in more tuna, which in turn have brought in more sharks to the area – thus more will wash up dead.

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The problem isn’t limited to the north coast. Bill Hanshumaker, Public Marine Education Specialist with the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, said an alarmingly large amount of baby salmon sharks have washed up on the central coast.

“I have had more than a half dozen reports of dead baby great white sharks,” Hanshumaker said. “Without exception, these turn out to be baby salmon shark pups. Though I typically see one or two every summer, this year’s higher number of dead pups is unusual. Salmon Shark pup are identified by their secondary keel and non-serrated teeth.”

Something similar has been happening in central California, where a large amount of dead baby sharks have been washing up there as well. But necropsies done on the creatures have revealed they had encephalitis, a disease of the brain.

Decomposed porpoise at Arch Cape Friday

As if that wasn’t enough, Seaside Aquarium staff also had to do deal with a dead and severely decomposed porpoise last Friday in Arch Cape, a shark that was still alive and a baby seal resting around Cannon Beach.

It was a simple harbor porpoise that showed up on Friday at the beach a few miles south of Cannon Beach, but dealing with its severely rotted corpse was a challenge. Staff put it in a series of connecting bags to keep it from falling apart while transporting it.

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Chandler said the whale cast the challenging porpoise in a different light. “That whale made the rotting porpoise look attractive,” he said.

Seaside's cove area

The porpoise, like the whale, had been rotting at sea for some time. “Things are only on the beach for a short time,” Boothe said. “Maybe only a couple of days go by before we get to respond to them, and it’s rare that it’s that long. So there’s not much time to decay.”

Harbor porpoises are extremely common to the Oregon coast, Boothe said. “On any given day, if you’re looking out over the cove area of Seaside for about a half hour, you’ll see a group of them. They blend in with the surfers sometimes, but they’re there.”

The salmon shark was an odd story, having washed up around Sunset Beach – north of Gearhart – but it apparently was still alive and kicking.

Boothe said it was reported to be seen still moving in the surf. They got the call about 10:15 a.m., and by 10:45, when they arrived, the shark was gone. “There are a lot of tide pools and sand bars there,” Boothe said. “It probably got caught on one feeding, then probably swam out.”

Boothe poses with an adorable baby seal found last year on a Seaside beach

A baby seal also wandered up to the northern beaches of Cannon Beach on the same day – Friday - just as the big tourist weekend was getting into full gear. Boothe and Chandler tried to reach the seal to put up warning signs, asking the public to leave it alone. But traffic in the area was so bad they had to abandon that task. Instead, Boothe got a member of the Haystack Awareness Program to go out put up the warning signs.

“We got the call about 3 p.m., and the baby seal had left by 6 p.m.,” Boothe said. The woman set with the task of putting up the warning sign said the seal pup disappeared when she came near with the sign.

More on the sharks (before the confirmation of the Great White) can be seen here.

More can be found on this subject, and other coastal oddities happening recently.

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