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Washington / Oregon Coast: Gray Whale Carcass Strands at Long Beach

Published 06/02/2020 at 6:54 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Washington / Oregon Coast: Gray Whale Carcass Strands at Long Beach

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(Long Beach, Washington) – Crews from the Seaside Aquarium (part of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network) responded Sunday to a call about a beached whale on the southern Washington coast, discovering a 37-foot male Gray whale. (Photos courtesy Seaside Aquarium / Tiffany Boothe)

Meanwhile, another large whale has reportedly washed up near Cape Meares on the north Oregon coast, although little is known about that.

Tiffany Boothe, with the aquarium, said the whale found at Long Beach Peninsula had clearly been dead for some time before washing up. Being in a fairly advanced state decomposition the whale smells quite bad. Still, Boothe said it’s quite possible the whale will be left untouched and not buried.

“So, what happens now? It depends,” she said. “Though smelly, it is best for the environment for the whale to remain unburied and on the beach. The whale provides food for a wide range of scavengers (such as the wolverine just spotted up on the Long Beach peninsula) and as the while decomposes nutrients are transferred into the surrounding sand. However, there are times and places that a whale cannot simply just remain on the beach. In those cases, the whale is buried or removed.”

A necropsy has already been performed on the whale, Boothe said. These are done to determine the cause of death, largely for scientific research. There has been a run of higher-than-usual death rates among Gray whales off the Oregon and Washington coasts in the last year or so, bringing more importance to such research.

Above: the Washington coast whale's baleen.

So what happens during a necropsy?

“First, a wide array of measurements are taken along with photographs,” Boothe said. “Any obvious, external signs of trauma or abnormalities are documented. Then the ‘fun’ starts. We peal back the blubber to look for more signs of trauma like hemorrhage (bruising), we measure the thickness of the blubber and examine the overall ‘health’ of the blubber (color, oil content, texture etc.), and finally we take samples of the blubber to examine back in a lab.”

Boothe said that is not an easy task as whale blubber is thick and heavy. The whole endeavor takes a lot of teamwork, which includes taking samples of other parts, like the baleen (the natural filter-like system the whale uses to gobble plankton and small fish).

“Next, we dive deeper into the whale looking for parasites, cancers, or other signs of disease,” Boothe said. “We also begin the daunting task of attempting to get samples from any organ we can access. This varies on each whale depending on the whale’s size and position.”

Boothe noted people may be surprised to learn a whale has three stomachs.

“While we are not able to definitely determine the cause of death on every animal, we are able to theorize,” Boothe said. “For this whale it was thought that the trauma to its head may have contributed to its death.”

Above: barnacles that grow on a whale's skin

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