Friday, July 12, 2019

A Whale of a Time

On May 31, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the abnormal number of gray whale strandings along the West Coast as an Unusual Mortality Event, or UME.

A UME needs to “involve a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demand immediate response."
Americorps members, Michael Siddel and Ellie Kravets,  conducting our initial observations. 
The very same week, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center received a report of a stranded adult male gray whale floating in our marine mammal stranding network zone. Over the next few days, we waited for the whale to land and worked out what our plan would be once that happened.

Thanks to many local organizations, NOAA and PTMSC volunteers, we were able to construct a team to move the whale by boat to a more isolated beach location. There, a necropsy was performed in order to determine the cause of death.

Volunteers towing the whale to his new location. 
Finding an appropriate location is important because the remains need to decompose wherever the whale is necropsied. And let me tell you, a 30-ton decomposing whale does not smell pretty!

Would you have guessed a whale had so many intestines? 
As you can imagine, not everyone wants a decomposing whale on their favorite beach walk. In addition, most of Washington's coastline is privately owned. This means a location that isn’t heavily trafficked and one that we have permission to use can be extremely difficult to find.
Fortunately for us, two of our very own volunteers offered up their beach property: Stefanie Worwag and Mario Rivera. Their incredible generosity was reported by numerous news outlets.

As with most of the other gray whales that have stranded during the UME, our whale was found with nothing but some eelgrass and a fruit snack pack in his stomach -- he was extremely malnourished. Currently, NOAA is working to figure out what is the reason behind these increased numbers of emaciated whales.

Two theories are currently under consideration.

First, by studying the West Coast gray whale population trends over the past 30 years, it may be possible that the “carrying capacity” has been reached. In other words, there may be as many gray whales as the West Coast can sustainably support. Gray whale numbers have been increasing and with that comes an increase in competition for food and other resources. This could be the reason behind the spike in mortalities.

The second explanation looks into the possibility that the UME is a result of climate change. It may be possible that warmer Arctic waters are inhibiting the availability of gray whales’ main food sources in those northern waters. 

As more information emerges, we will be sure to update this blog for our supporters.

Written by AmeriCorps Volunteer Program Educator Mandi Johnson.

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