National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration law enforcement officials are currently investigating a collision between the state ferry Kennicott and a humpback whale near Kodiak. The incident was first reported on Saturday and brought a multi-agency team of scientists to the island to help determine whether or not the collision caused the death of the 30-foot-long, subadult humpback whale.
Kate Wynne is a marine mammal specialist for the University of Alaska Sea Grant Program and spent all of Wednesday cutting open the 25-ton humpback whale, which is currently beached on Puffin Island, just beyond Kodiak harbor’s breakwater.
“This animal definitely died from a massive trauma. It got hit. It got t-boned basically in a characteristic way that ship strikes have been evidenced before. So, broken ribs, broken spine, skull fracture – that sort of thing. The determination of how that happened is out of my realm and it’s in the investigation mode still.”
The lead vet for the investigation was Frances Gulland, a senior scientist at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. She flew up to Kodiak on Tuesday and spent more than 7 hours performing a full-body, internal examination on the carcass.
“The most dramatic finding was these massive fractures of the skull. She had multiple fractures, both on the right side and the left side of the skull, and a lot of hemorrhage. So she must have died instantly when she was hit on the back of the head. Sometimes there’s a concern that maybe she could have been floating and was already dead and was just hit after that. But during the post mortem exam there was evidence of a hemorrhage and bruising and fractures that only happen if the trauma happens when the animal is alive.”
Gulland said it’s pretty clear the whale was hit when it was alive, but whether or not the fatality was caused by a ship, specifically the ferry Kennicott, is still unknown. The determination is now up to NOAA law enforcement, which will look at a variety of factors to try and pin point what actually killed the whale.
Wynne said her understanding was that the whale strike was actually reported by Kennicott crewmembers who notified officials that they hit something, but no whales were visible so they weren’t sure if that was what occurred.
“And when they got to port they looked over as they slowed down, they saw the whale was on the bow of the ship and it slid off as they slowed down and there’s no water pushing against it. So they hit a whale, but the question was, was it a dead whale when they hit it or a live whale when they hit it. In either case, reporting it was the absolute best thing for them to do immediately.”
Wynne said the whale was caught on the bulbous bow, the round knob on large ships that sits below the water’s surface. She first became involved with the incident to actually help locate the whale, because when it came off the bow, it sunk below the surface. It wasn’t until a sighting was reported on Monday that they actually found the whale and Wynne readied the extensive team of folks that had been notified of the incident on Saturday.
“Starting on Saturday we started getting a team of folks together to look at this whale if it came ashore. So it involved NOAA enforcement folks, NOAA protected resources folks in Juneau, they called vets from out of state to come do a full necropsy. On Monday the harbormaster and deputy harbormaster assisted us in towing the whale when it didn’t float to the surface – we towed it to Puffin Island to get it out of the traffic lane, number one, and hook it up so we could get this team of people in town to do a full necropsy.”
Wynne said help also came from the Alaska State Troopers, Fish and Game and the Alaska Deep Ocean Science Institute. She said it was a massive effort to disassemble the whale and look inside it. They removed large chunks of blubber and stored them past the high tide marker on the beach so they wouldn’t float away. Those still remain on Puffin Island, which is a popular stop-off point for folks kayaking in the area.
“So those people who go picnicking on Puffin Island for the next couple of weeks – there’s going to be a lot of odor there, number one. Number two, we left the whale tied up and the skull tied up and we’re hoping to go back and do a more thorough exam after it gets cleaned and weathered and stuff. So we want people not to disturb it. It’s not only illegal to disturb the carcass, but we want to be able to go back and do more examination. So it’s right there, it’s very visible, people are going to want to go look at it, but we’re asking people not to disturb the carcass.”
Wynne said whale and ship collisions are an interesting conservation problem worldwide, especially in areas with larger, high traffic shipping lanes. She said research is being done to determine what speeds might be safe for ships to travel and avoid fatal collisions, as well as monitoring whale distributions.
A few years ago a fin whale washed up in Kodiak that also had the characteristics of a ship strike fatality, but other than that Wynne said this is a very rare occurrence in this area. She said they are making the most of the carcass and studying as much of the whale as they can, because they don’t often get the opportunity to do so on this fresh of a body.
Alaska Marine Highway System Spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the investigation currently underway will hopefully shed light on why the collision occurred and hopefully prevent future incidents. He said no damage was reported to the Kennicott.