Mother and calf are probably rare beaked whales scientists said
A mystery deeper than the waters of Port Valdez unfolded early last week after a crew from Stan Stephens Cruises spotted a pair of whales dying along the shoreline between Anderson Bay and the Valdez Marine Terminal.
The finding set off a rush of activity a week ago Tuesday as a veterinary pathologist under contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service and scientists from the Alaska Sea Life Center teamed up with numerous Valdez organizations to help answer “why.”
The drama began a week ago Sunday according to Colleen Stephens of Stan Stephens Cruises. She said the first whale was spotted late Sunday morning, Sept. 8 by one of its boats loaded with tourists, headed for Columbia Glacier. Only one whale was seen at the time, but company officials immediately contacted National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and called the hotline run by the Alaska Sea Life Center.
The tours routinely scour the shorelines looking for bears and instead found a tragedy.
NMFS asked the cruise line to make a second check of the area. The tide rose and no whale was seen according to Stephens.
On Monday, both the adult and a second, smaller whale were spotted and both were dead.
Kathy Burek Huntington, a veterinary pathologist with Alaska Veterinary Pathology Service under contract with NMFS, quickly assembled a team in hopes of performing autopsies on the marine mammals as soon as possible.
“We mobilized a bunch of people to see what we could get going,” Burek Huntington said Wednesday afternoon while waiting to catch a plane to Anchorage. “It’s very unusual to get to one that’s so fresh.”
In addition to the help she received from Natalie Rouse and Russ Andrews from the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, Burek Huntington said staff from Stan Stephens was “super helpful,” as were all other entities that were asked to help.
“We’ve been very lucky all the way along,” Burek Huntington said. “We were able to get out and work on the large animal.”
The team took numerous tissue samples from what the scientists believe was the mother whale; the baby calf was hauled to shore for autopsy at the city’s baler facility.
“We were there till like 2 o’clock in the morning,” Burek Huntington said.
The dead calf was very much still a baby.
“It was young, still nursing,” Burek Huntington said, “As far as I could tell it hadn’t eaten food yet.”
Despite the young mammal’s youth, the male calf still measured over eight feet in length and weighed over 800 pounds.
This presented its own problem, as the pathology team had high hopes that the carcass might be run the CT scan at the local hospital, Providence Valdez Medical Center.
The size of the baby whale proved too large for the hospital, but the facility was able to do CT scans on the heads of both whales.
“The CT folks were all fired up to help us on that,” Burek Huntington said.
Technicians Christopher Slinde and Brian Reeves performed the scans.
Hospital officials said the cost CT scans will be donated as a public service.
Burek Huntington said that while it has not yet been scientifically proved the pair are mother and son, she would be surprised to find out the two were not related.
The team has speculated the pair are Baird’s Beaked Whales, but are waiting to confer with other experts after more work can be done with the autopsy tissue and CT scan, to see which species the two were.
Beaked Whales have more than one species are a deep water marine mammal according to Andrews. Typically they are seen much further out in the Gulf of Alaska.
“They should be outrageously rare to see in Port Valdez,” he said.
The team said there were no obvious signs of trauma too either whale. The remains of the calf were buried at the city landfill. The carcass of the adult was left ashore to return to the environment.
“We’re hoping the bears will enjoy that,” Burek Huntington said. “We left plenty for them to eat.”
While the bears may be able to enjoy a rare treat, she stressed that it is highly illegal for people to scavenge marine mammal carcasses.
Stephens stressed the cruise company acted only at the behest of NMFS.
“…we did not act on our own,” she stressed in a follow-up email Monday. “All beach observations and follow up from the first sighting was done with permission and direction of the National Marine Fisheries Service and their contracts. Never should someone who comes along a stranded mammal take action without direction. The number to call for stranding is 877-925-7773.”