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Oregon Coast Fin Whale Update: Sick, Weathered Orca Attack, Fishing Gear

Published 2/13/24 at 6:55 p.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Oregon Coast Fin Whale Update: Sick, Weathered Orca Attack, Fishing Gear

(Gearhart, Oregon) – A 46-foot, sub-adult male fin whale stranded on the north Oregon coast early Monday, and experts have released much more information after a necropsy was done on the beach this morning (Tuesday). (All photos courtesy Tiffany Boothe / Seaside Aquarium)

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This was an extremely rare find, with only one record of a fin whale coming onshore along the Oregon coast in about 20 years. It's a case with a few unusual aspects: experts found evidence of illness, an orca attack and being caught in fishing gear.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its Northwest Fisheries Science Center coordinated the response, as it oversees the local Marine Mammal Stranding Network. This included Seaside Aquarium, Portland State University, Cascadia Research Collective, Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research, and the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory.

The fin whale hit the sands near the Sunset Beach access between Warrenton and Gearhart, showing up entangled in fishing gear.

There were initial reports that it was still moving and alive, although those were later determined to be incorrect.

“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 Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium.

Fresh rake marks from an orca attack

NOAA was unusually vocal this time around, going on Facebook and pleading with the public to keep away. Now, it's obvious why: someone had taken away the fishing gear and did not wait for officials or experts to do so. This is illegal.

“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.”

Boothe told Oregon Coast Beach Connection because of this, they do not know what kind of fishing gear had surrounded the fin whale.

A small cadre of agencies helped conduct the necropsy, and discovered numerous things, including the fact the fishing gear had little to nothing to do with its death.

Michael Milstein, spokesman for NOAA, said the whale was emaciated and probably died from an underlying illness. The necropsy noted it also had marks on it from an orca encounter and from the fishing gear.

However, the necropsy so far indicates it was more the illness and / or its weight loss that killed the fin whale. Experts took numerous samples and this will hopefully reveal the illness and cause, but results won't be back for two weeks.

“The injuries associated with the entanglement appeared to be fresh and superficial,” NOAA said. “The team also recorded wounds from killer whales, called 'rake marks.'

See the original story with info about fin whales A Rare Stranding on Oregon Coast, Fin Whale Washes Up Near Seaside

So what happened with the orca attack? Josh McInnes, with British Columbia's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries Marine Mammal Research Unit, also runs the Oregon Coast Killer Whale Monitoring Program. He looked at the photos today and made an educated guess – although he was not present at the site.

“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.

What will happen with the fin whale body?

Boothe said Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) is simply going to leave it on the beach to decompose. This means it's going to be around for some time, but you're not going to want to check it out up close. Very soon it will stink horribly, and it will increasingly pose a risk of disease to humans and pets.

Milstein told Oregon Coast Beach Connection this find was extremely rare. Only five have washed up on the West Coast of the U.S. in the last two years (including the Washington coast), and none were in NOAA's records for Oregon in the last ten years. Boothe, however, said the Aquarium encountered one about 20 years ago.

“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.

In the meantime, NOAA is adamant you stay away from stranded marine mammals, at least partially to avoid the incident Monday with the lost fishing gear.

“Entanglement and stranding response to large whales provides an important opportunity to collect, document, and identify the entangling gear," NOAA said. "Analyzing removed entangling gear provides information that may reduce the risk of future entanglements. Report strandings to the Stranding Network at 1-866-767-6114.”

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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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