Body of beaked whale floats up off Unalaska

Three beaked whales surfacing
Baird’s beaked whales seen off Monterey in 2014. The whale found dead off Unalaska may have been a Baird’s beaked whale, but it’s not certain yet. (Creative Commons photo by Fred Hochstaedter)

The U.S. Coast Guard had an unusual wildlife spotting off the coast of Unalaska last month: the body of a beaked whale.

The whale was found floating near Makushin Bay.

Researchers say it’s rare to see beaked whales, so even spotting a dead one provides an opportunity to learn more about the animals. The whales live in the cold ocean waters and dive more than 3,000 feet down to feed on fish and squid.

“They’re very deep divers, and we don’t know a lot about them,” said Mandy Keogh, the Alaska regional stranding coordinator for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. “When they’re done diving, they might sit at the surface for a little while, but then they’re gone again.”

A floating whale carcass
The beaked whale’s carcass floating near Makushin Bay. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Keogh said it appears the whale spotted last month was a Baird’s beaked whale, but it hasn’t been confirmed yet.

The Coast Guard had reported the whale to the 24-hour stranding hotline.

The hotline is part of a statewide program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. People can call in to report animals that are caught in fishing nets or stranded on beaches. Or, in the case of the beaked whale, floating in the water.

When possible, a team of local volunteers responds. If the animal is injured, they do what they can to help. If it’s dead, they take measurements and samples. The data helps researchers learn about individual animals and monitor populations.

In the case of the beaked whale, the stranding network was unable to send out volunteers due to the location of the animal. But Keogh said researchers are using photographs of the whale to determine information such as species, sex and whether there are any signs of trauma.

Keogh underscored the importance of people reporting stranded mammals to the hotline. Stranding reports can act as an early alarm system that something is wrong with an entire population. Keogh said this helped NOAA realize ice seals were dying in huge numbers in the Bering Sea in 2018.

We saw an unusually large number of ice seals being reported stranded dead along the shores. And that is particularly concerning because those animals are of subsistence importance,” she said.

You can report stranded, injured, and dead marine mammals to the 24-hour Stranding Hotline at 877-925-7773.

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