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Oregon Coast Crews Attend to Giant, Beached Whale on Washington Side

Published 02/19/22 at 5:06 PM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Oregon Coast Crews Attend to Giant, Beached Whale on Washington Side

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(Ocean Park, Washington) – Crew and scientists from the Oregon coast came up to the southern Washington coast on Friday to deal with a whale that had beached there on Thursday, including conducting a necropsy. The gray whale was 39 feet long and an adult male, and it was clear it had been dead for some time before washing up. (All photos Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium)

Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium said her group came to the site on a beach at Ocean Park, as well as scientists from Portland State University and Cascadia Research Collective.

“While it can be difficult to determine the exact cause of death on larger whales, especially those which have been dead for a while before washing ashore, it was clear that this whale suffered some sort of severe trauma which was most likely due to a ship strike.”

Gray whales are currently just between their migration southward and their spring migration northward, with March being the starting point for their run up to Alaska, resulting in the peak Whale Watch Week for Oregon coast and Washington coast spectators at the end of March. Where this whale fit in is anyone's guess, but its body contained some elements of big interest to scientists: whale lice, gray whale barnacles and what's in their intestines.

Orca scars and and barnacle scars on the gray whale

Boothe said gray whale barnacles (Cryptoplepas rhachianecti) are host-specific, which means they can not be found attached to or living on any other species except Gray whales. Their life cycles are tied in closely to the migrations of the gray whale. When it's mating season, thousands head southward to the protected lagoons and bays off Mexico's coastline. In those calm, warm waters, the gray whale barnacles release their larvae. This is an exceptionally smart quirk of evolution, because it allows the larvae to more easily find hosts in smaller, more enclosed areas.

Once attached, they're riding a food train: gray whales spend a lot of time in nutrient-rich waters.

Then there's gray whale lice, which are a form of crustacean that specializes in living on whales in crevices or wounds. They are a parasite, but not a true parasite: there's some mutual benefit. The crustaceans eat dead skin off the whale, thereby helping it.

“Mothers can spread their lice to their newborn calves,” Boothe said.

Whales will sometimes breach or scrape themselves on things to get rid of the whale lice or barnacles.

One of Tiffany's photos shows the fin of the gray whale and a host of white circular marks and other scratches. The circular formations are barnacle scars – where they've come off. The straight-line gouges are from an orca attack.

Whale experts on the Oregon coast and Washington coast often use markings like these to ID whales.

Scientists also pulled out the intestines of the gray whale. The gray whale has nearly the longest intestine in the animal kingdom at near 300 feet long.

Soon begins the spring migration of whales along the Oregon coast and Washington coast, where you'll see a good portion of the 18,000 such whales living along the eastern Pacific.

Seaside Aquarium manager Keith Chandler said he isn't sure what Washington officials will do with the gray whale, but it's likely it will be left as food for local wildlife. It's in a somewhat remote stretch of beach near Oysterville, he said.

“That's a lot of eagle food,” Chandler said. MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Barnacles and whale lice

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