Dead whales near Kodiak Island pose mystery

Fin whale arching for a deep dive, showing characteristic backswept dorsal fin. (Public domain photo from Wikipedia)
Fin whale arching for a deep dive, showing characteristic backswept dorsal fin. (Public domain photo from Wikipedia)

At least 10 fin whales are dead, having fallen victim to a mysterious affliction that seems to have killed them all near Kodiak Island. Kate Wynn, marine mammal specialist with the University of Alaska in Kodiak, said all the whales seemed to have met their fate at the same time and place.

“The evidence suggests that all of these whales that we’ve found died at about the same time, which is like the third week of May, around the 20th, in a short period of time in a fairly localized area, and that’s about all we know right now,” Wynn said. “So it rules out a couple of things. And the fact that the carcasses are intact, it rules out killer whale predation. But other than that, we’re at a loss.”

The whales were found south of Afognak Island, the second largest in the Kodiak Archipelago just north of Kodiak Island.

All the dead whales spotted have been adults, except one calf and a couple of sub-adults, with a mix of genders. It’s the feeding that Wynn thinks may be the most likely culprit in their death.

“It suggests that there’s something, a feeding group of fin whales ran into a toxin, or bio-toxin, human caused, induced, toxin, something that they were exposed to together in a short period of time,” Wynn said.

“So we’re looking at water temperature, harmful algae bloom possibilities. But there’s a lot of things that don’t add up with that theory. Mainly that we don’t find the prey species dead on the beach or other species that would be eating the same prey, dying.”

Fin whales, the second-largest species after Blue Whales, are filter feeders, meaning they strain tiny sea life in its baleen to eat. They do not eat larger seafood such as salmon or halibut.

Wynn says that a colleague at the Marine Advisory Program in Kodiak is checking for evidence of paralytic shellfish poisoning.

Blubber and muscle samples, and an eyeball, recovered from one whale have been sent for laboratory examination, and Wynn says results might be available next week.


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