In death, beached Turnagain Arm humpback offers research samples, clues and food

A humpback whale that beached in Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage near Girdwood has died. Biologists say it is an uncommon location for a humpback, and they are now studying its death.

The whale became stranded Sunday and again Monday. It appeared to free itself Monday night, but its body washed ashore Tuesday a few miles away from where it had first beached.

On Wednesday, researchers carefully took measurements and samples, and subsistence users harvested blubber for food.

The whale looks to be 2 years old or a little younger, according to Kathy Burek, a veterinary pathologist and part of the National Marine Fisheries Service team investigating the whale’s death.

The tail fluke of a young humpback whale that beached and died in Turnagain Arm near Girdwood, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Photo by Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

The researchers are still looking at what caused its death, but Burek said she thinks the whale might have been following fish or smaller whales that are better-suited for the narrow, shallow channels of Upper Cook Inlet.

“I really think the most likely thing is, this is just a really young animal. Maybe it followed the hooligan up or a bunch of belugas,” Burek said. “So I think he just got a little confused and headed up the arm and he just got lost and can’t get out.”

Samples taken from the whale can answer a variety of questions, including how stressed the whale had been in its final days or, looking at its genetics, how it is related to other whales, Burek said. They might not find a specific cause of death, she said, but there are still many research projects that will benefit from studying samples from the whale.

(Photo by Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

That includes a researcher in California who is hoping to get the whale’s entire head, which Burek guessed weighs more than a ton.

“Because he wants to get it into a freezer and then do an MRI, or a scan, of the entire head to try to look at the anatomy of a Mysticeti, or a baleen whale, head,” Burek said.

If it’s even possible, Burek said, the whale head would have to be hauled up a rocky embankment with heavy equipment. Testing of other, easier-to-get samples is already underway.

Researchers work to remove samples Wednesday, May 1, 2019, from a humpback whale that died after beaching in Turnagain Arm near Girdwood. (Photo by Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

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