Biologists investigate whale death amid Anchorage gawkers

Biologists and veterinarians work Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2017, to cut blubber off a young humpback whale that washed up on a popular beach in Anchorage.

Biologists and veterinarians work Tuesday to cut blubber off a young humpback whale that washed up on a popular beach in Anchorage. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media photo)

The extraordinary sight of a 30-foot long dead humpback whale that washed up on a beach area in Anchorage has drawn dozens of onlookers to gawk at its carcass.

Among them Tuesday were veterinarians working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who got a much closer look as they began a necropsy in the hopes of figuring out how the young whale died.

It’s a short walk from Kincaid Park to the dead whale, which, for now, sits in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. NOAA biologist Barbara Mahoney was happy about the easy access.

“It’s affordable. There’s no helicopters involved, we can have a big crew here, so this is actually a great opportunity,” Mahoney said. “And it’s a lovely day!”

Mahoney and her crew, which included veterinarians, hauled coolers, knives and other gear down a hill to the stinking, rotten whale carcass. When they arrived, multiple people, many with small children, were on the beach looking at the whale, which had been cordoned off with plastic orange fencing.

NOAA had issued a warning the day before, saying people and pets should stay away from the whale. That’s in part because of the risk of disease — they don’t know yet how it died, and it could be infectious. There’s also the risk that the smell of hundreds of pounds of whale flesh will attract bears and cause possible interactions between bears and humans.

Despite the warning, NOAA Fisheries law enforcement officer Noah Meisenheimer said he was not surprised to see so many people around the whale, which could help keep bears away.

“Bear activity’s going to be limited,” Meisenheimer said. “I mean there might be some bears that may come out at night, but during the daytime with this many people, I doubt they’ll be making a showing.”

With all their gear strategically laid out in a semi-circle around the whale carcass, veterinarian Kathy Burek gave a safety briefing to the team conducting the necropsy. That included warnings to avoid slipping on blood or blubber and staying hydrated.

Also, there’s the smell.

“Some people, depending on if they’re not used to being around things that smell bad, we have had people pass out, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but just kind of be aware of that,” Burek said. “If things are kind of closing in on you, just go ahead and sit down.”

After Burek shared a few more tips and tricks, the team set to work, first measuring the whale, then using long knives and hooks to cut and peel away the blubber. That allows them to get at internal organs like the stomach and bladder, to conduct further sampling.

Burek said they hope to examine the whale’s ear wax, which builds up annually like the rings of a tree and can tell them the whale’s age. For now they are describing it as a yearling.

Mahoney, the NOAA biologist, said there are no obvious signs of broken bones that might indicate the whale was struck by a ship.

The biologists don’t know when they’ll have answers or if they can determine the precise cause of the whale’s death, because of the decomposition.

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