Scientists work to find whale's cause of death
Slicing through the thick, black skin of the humpback whale was scientists’ first step for its necropsy.
“It's like old leather, a little rubbery, a little crunchy but pretty thick,” said Dr. Carrie Goertz, the director of Animal Health at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
She was one of about a dozen team members helping with the necropsy for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The sub-adult, male humpback whale was spotted floating in Knik Arm last week. Over the weekend it washed up on the beach of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge near Kincaid Park.
Many people had a front row seat to the necropsy because the beach is so easily accessible.
“This gives them the opportunity to get up close and personal with the whales,” said Breanna Kaiser, who brought her kids to see the humpback.
Kaiser homeschools her children and said the necropsy was a great learning opportunity.
“Watching them go through the different layers, the skin, then the fat and now, they’re getting into the muscle. So it’s pretty interesting to see the anatomy of the whale,” Kaiser said.
Scientists peeled back those layers to get to the skeleton and hoped to uncover more about the whale’s death.
“Even though it's been dead for a long time, we can still learn a lot,” said Dr. Goertz. “Some life history information, as well as testing-- looking at contaminants, including harmful algal blooms.”
Dr. Goertz said the toughest part of the necropsy was getting to the whale’s core; she had to switch knives every few minutes because they got dull so quickly.
“It's a lot of work. I'm going to be pretty sore for the next couple of days,” she laughed.
Even bystanders, like Kaiser’s son, Xander, noticed the extra effort it took to blade through the blubber.
“Probably a good three inches of fat on it. There's one guy that all he's doing is sitting on a bucket, sharpening knives,” Xander said.
The more the team cut from the whale, the more evident the decay.
People downwind of the whale plugged their noses or covered their face with their shirtsleeve.
A man named Phil and his friend Andrea came equipped with gas masks.
“I can't smell a thing. When I had them off I was going to vomit,” Phil said.
Scientists said even if they can’t determine an exact cause of death because the tissue is so decayed, the necropsy will give them a better glimpse into the marine world.
“It helps us understand what's going on with the species and what's going on in Cook Inlet, and helps us better manage and care for these animals,” Dr. Goertz said.
NOAA expects to have preliminary results from the samples back in a few weeks. A full report could take months.