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Extremely Rare Fin Whale Strands on Oregon Coast: Attacked by Orcas, Stuck in Fishing Gear, Video

Published 2/15/24 at 6:25 p.m.
B
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Extremely Rare Fin Whale Strands on Oregon Coast - Attacked by Orcas, Stuck in Fishing Gear

(Gearhart, Oregon) – Not only is sighting them along the Oregon coast somewhat rare, but actually finding one that's washed up on these shores is like a one-in-20-year event. In fact, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had no record of a fin whale stranding in Oregon in their ten years of keeping track. (All photos Seaside Aquarium)

Yet this sub-adult fine whale held a few more twists and turns when it showed up at Sunset Beach early Monday morning. Not only was this46-foot male sick and emaciated – something whale experts are very concerned about – but this member of an endangered species had signs of an orca attack and was caught in fishing gear.

The fin whale carcass remains on the beach, and authorities are still urging the public to keep away because of the possibility of disease. As it slowly decomposes, this danger gets worse, especially for pets.

When it rolled in on the surf, some witnesses thought it was still alive, said Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium, one of several responding agencies.

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“As the whale was washing ashore, the surf was pushing it around making some people believe that the whale was still alive at the time of stranding,” said Boothe.

NOAA and its Northwest Fisheries Science Center coordinates these responses to marine mammals, but normally behind the scenes. This time, they took a very public stance immediately, which was a bit unusual. The agency pleaded on social for the public to stay away.

It turns out there was a reason for that.

“Unfortunately, before authorized responders had a chance to examine the whale, someone removed the entangling gear,” Boothe said. “While it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, this compromised the stranding and entanglement investigation.”

This impedes the investigation, causing issues in determining exactly what happened here. It is illegal to try and intervene with a marine mammal stranding, even if you are trying to help.

Michael Milstein, spokesman for NOAA, said the other responders included Portland State University, Cascadia Research Collective, Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research, and the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory.

Some of those groups assisted in a necropsy on Tuesday, but results won't be back before a couple of weeks. In the meantime, experts say it was likely some disease that killed the whale, discovering it was quite ill and emaciated.

Among the most interesting of finds for the whale are the rake marks made by orcas.

Milstein said those marks were superficial, as were the abrasions from the fishing gear, so those likely did not cause the death.

Orca expert Josh McInnes (British Columbia's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries Marine Mammal Research Unit and the Oregon Coast Killer Whale Monitoring Program) said it was an opportunistic attack, but not the final blow.

“My thoughts are that this whale was sick and likely a group of transient killer whales sensed that and made an exploratory attack on the whale that resulted in superficial wounds but did not result in killing the whale,” McInnes told Oregon Coast Beach Connection.

Fin whales can get as long as 80 feet and their blow can get up to 20 feet into the air, seen as far away as several miles. This species is among the fastest as well as largest in the world, able to scoot along at 29 mph.

They are not seen much on the Oregon coast, but occasionally spotted farther out to sea. Seaside Aquarium said it encountered one 20 years ago, and all agreed this incident was rare in a lot of ways.

“We estimate about 8,000 fin whales off the West Coast but they generally stay farther offshore in deeper water, so they are rare to show up in strandings on shore,” Milstein told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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