Blue whale found dead off Central Coast hauled to Ragged Point and cut up

Mammal is towed to Ragged Point and cut up for examination

ktanner@thetribunenews.com, betling@thetribunenews.comOctober 13, 2009 

Marine-mammal scientists converged on the remains of a 50-foot-long blue whale towed to a beach south of Ragged Point on Monday. Marine veterinarians said it had a fractured skull and vertebra and hemorrhaging muscle tissue, most likely the result of being struck by a ship.

Finding the body of one of these huge creatures, which can grow to over 100 feet long, is rare in this area, according to Shelbi Stoudt of The Marine Mammal Center, a rehabilitation and rescue group based in Sausalito.

The National Marine Fisheries Service asked The Marine Mammal Center and other scientists to examine the carcass to determine why the whale died and if it was a possible ship strike in light of the many whale strandings — including rare blue whales — near the Channel Islands last year.

Before last year’s strandings, Stoudt said they had recorded only two others — one in 2004 in Monterey and another in 2002 in the Carmel Headlands.

Blue whales are the largest mammals on Earth, and possibly the largest animals ever, according to the American Cetacean Society Web site, www.acsonline.org.

Fearing the endangered animals could soon become extinct, the International Whaling Commission banned all hunting of blue whales in 1966. There are now an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 blue whales in the Northern Hemisphere.

The whale that ended up on the beach not far from where San Luis Obispo County borders Monterey County was first spotted Friday about a third of a mile offshore, Stoudt said in an e-mail to The Tribune.

It was towed by a salvage vessel about 30 miles south to where it could be safely beached and studied, with the assistance of heavy equipment to maneuver the enormous carcass.

The male whale, thought to be only a year old, likely had been floating in the water for three to five days, according to Jim Oswald of The Marine Mammal Center.

Oswald said biologists and veterinarians sectioned the whale’s body on the beach, systematically looking for the cause of death and collecting samples of tissue, blubber and bone.

Among the institutions represented were the Marine Wildlife Institute, Long Marine Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz, Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, California Academy of Sciences, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and the state Department of Fish and Game, in addition to The Marine Mammal Center.

Scientists hurried to finish their examination Monday evening, before the arrival of the storm that moved in Tuesday. They plan to leave the body parts exposed through the storm, since they’d have a good chance of being carried out to sea. After that, the scientists will decide if they need to bury what’s left.

Josh Warren of Cambria, who ran one of the excavators used to move the whale’s body, said things “really got stinky’’ when the scientists started cutting.

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