Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A beached fin whale in Oregon offers a rare glimpse of a giant

By Justine McDaniel Washington Post

Scavengers usually take the eyeballs first, but they were still untouched when Tiffany Boothe reached the fin whale.

He was nearly 50 feet long, his sleek body’s shades of gray exposed to human view, baleen visible as the surf washed in and out of his open mouth on the Oregon shore. The whale was already dead, but Boothe made eye contact.

“You almost have this human interaction with them when you look into their eyes,” said Boothe, who was among a group responding to the whale’s stranding. “They look so much like human eyes. In a way, you kind of feel this presence behind it.”

The adolescent male fin whale washed up on Sunset Beach in Warrenton, Oregon, last week, entangled in rope and no longer alive.

He has quickly become a local attraction, drawing people to the beach for a rare and educational glimpse of one of Earth’s giants.

How the emaciated whale died is under investigation; local responders with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network performed a necropsy and are awaiting results. Neither the wounds caused by the rope nor some recent orca bites appeared severe enough to have caused his death, Boothe told the Washington Post, leading the scientists to believe that the whale had an underlying condition before becoming entangled.

The whale will be left on the beach to decompose naturally, a process that could take up to a year, though his bones probably will become buried by sand before then, said Boothe, assistant manager of Seaside Aquarium in northwestern Oregon, which is part of the stranding network.

For now, stranding responders are encouraging people to go take a look.

“It’s a cool, great opportunity to get really close to this big whale. It’s hard to put it in perspective how big these animals really are,” Boothe said. “For a lot of people, it’s a one-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Fin whales are the second-largest whale species, smaller only than blue whales. Fast swimmers that can eat two tons of food a day, they grow up to 85 feet long, weigh 40 to 80 tons and live for 80 to 90 years, according to NOAA. Relatively sleek and lean, they are named for the dorsal fin on their backs.

The migratory species is endangered, its population having been depleted by whaling in the 1900s, though it has made a recovery. About 8,000 fin whales live offshore in deeper waters, and their population is smaller than those of other large whales, making them unusual to spot on the West Coast. Sightings of fin whales are rarer than those of gray whales and humpbacks.

Beachings are also rarer – fin whales’ bodily makeup means they are less likely to float than other whales and tend to sink to the bottom rather than wash ashore when they die, Boothe said. This was the second fin whale stranded in Oregon in about 30 years, she said.

The whale washed up around the middle of a 17-mile stretch of shore, in an area where people are permitted to drive on the beach.

The specimen has been “creating quite a stir here,” Boothe said, with people “really, really interested” in seeing the whale. Visitors need to keep a respectful distance – the whale can carry diseases transmissible to humans and pets – and prepare for the smell.

“If you haven’t smelled a dead whale before, it’s hard to explain. It just smells real bad,” Boothe said.

It would be difficult to cordon off the large section of beach, Boothe said, so the stranding network is relying on the public to leave the whale untouched. Under the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to collect any part of an endangered species.

Stranding responders are hoping the whale’s bones will either wash out to sea or be covered in sand, but they could later intervene to prevent thievery, Boothe said.

Leaving the whale undisturbed is the best course of action for the ecosystem, she said. It will provide a “huge nutrient boost” to the animals that feed on it, from bald eagles and vultures to tiny invertebrates.

Stranded whales can also be towed out to sea or buried, said NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein, depending on the situation. Letting the carcass decompose means it “essentially gets injected back into the ecosystem over time,” he said. “The ecosystem is working as it should.”

The beaching also presents a scientific opportunity. While it’s more common for gray or humpback whales to appear on beaches, only two or three fin whales are normally seen on the West Coast each year, Milstein said. In December, one washed up in San Diego, probably a victim of an orca attack.

With the Oregon whale freshly deceased, biologists who responded to the stranding last week were able to take good samples of the creature’s tissue, muscle, baleen, heart, lung, stomach and lymph nodes, which can be used for scientific study. The whale wasn’t full grown, having achieved only 46 feet of an adult’s length of about 85 feet.

In addition to determining what killed the whale, Milstein said, scientists will examine its stomach contents, genetic patterns and other attributes that can signal how the population is changing.

Today, like other whales, fin whales are at risk of being hit by ships, caught in fishing gear or affected by changing ocean conditions.

“To see any sort of (whale) up close, you really glean why it’s important to keep our ocean environment healthy and safe,” Boothe said. “It would be nice if people would see this whale and have a better idea of the trash going into the marine environment. And maybe while they’re out there looking at the whale, they can pick up the beach a little bit.”