Photo: Matthew Savoca/Reuters
The nearly 32-foot towering frame of a male humpback whale was found sprawled on the sand near Fort Bragg in California on Saturday – the fourth whale to wash ashore along Mendocino shores this year.
A day later, a young female humpback would also be found dead far to the north, near Vancouver Island. She was known to scientists as “Spike”, having first been documented in 2018.
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The death of the whales has sparked alarm among members of the public, as experts work to study the carcasses and determine how and why the giant migrating mammals ended up on these beaches. Although each death is a tragedy, they offer important clues and information that allow scientists to better understand ocean conditions and growing risks.
As important parts of the ocean ecosystem with ranges that span thousands of miles, whales are often seen as indicators of ocean health. Unnatural deaths can serve as signals that something is wrong. Trauma from ship strikes is also a common cause of whale death.
But the mysteries are not always easy to solve and the autopsy will take time.
As worried onlookers gathered around the beach-bound body north of Pudding Creek Beach in California on Sunday, researchers and volunteers got to work collecting samples to determine the cause of death. Skin and blubber samples were taken, along with the whale’s pelvic bones, which will go to the California Academy of Sciences, and parts of the baleen, the sieve-like strands that allow the whales to filter and filter their food.
“There is no evidence of a ship strike at this time,” Sarah Grimes of the Noyo Center for Marine Science told the Mendocino Voice, even after a laceration was seen on the right side of the whale. . Scientists will continue to examine the carcass for broken bones and bruises.
Collisions with ships are a growing problem and one of the leading causes of death for endangered creatures that cross the waters frequented by large cargo ships.
“When ships pass quickly through these areas, there is a high risk of collision, injury and death, as the whales are often unable to steer clear of the ship’s path in time,” the World Wildlife Federation says in an information page on the issue. The growing toll even prompted environmentalists to compare it to the “road death” of the ocean in a study published in 2019.
Hundreds of miles to the north, scientists were also working to interpret the wounds on Spike’s body to analyze evidence of what might have killed the beloved whale. She had no apparent external injury. Photos show her anchored in shallow water, distended by decay.
“We don’t know what caused his death,” experts from the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) said in an Instagram post, but adding that “it will come as no surprise if it turns out that ‘She died of blunt trauma’. after being hit by a boat.
The organization added that the footage of Spike was shared to tell locals that action was underway and to educate the public about whales and what to do when they wash up on shore. “The tragedy may lead to greater awareness of who to call regardless of any conclusions that may be drawn about the cause of his death,” the marine research firm said. The survey is being conducted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Spike, named after the character from the animated classic Land Before Time, had a dinosaur-like mark on his left side. She had been identified by researchers from MERS, who track individual whales in the region to improve understanding of the impressive giants and encourage conservation.
“We feel the depth of emotion that comes from knowing these whales as individuals,” MERS researcher Jackie Hildering told the National Observer of Canada. But beyond the loss, she added, the important find will help spark public interest. Many whales that perish and sink to the depths will not have their story told.
“It’s important for people to care about whales as individuals because it helps us evolve in understanding how our actions impact them as representatives of the ecosystem,” Hildering said. “Spike is an ambassador of her kind.”