Examination of a dead fin whale found at the Port of Tacoma (August, 2009)

Prepared by Jessie Huggins, Cascadia Research and Dyanna Lambourn, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

A whale that was recently found at the Port of the Tacoma was determined to be a young fin whale and was the apparent victim of a ship strike based on the examination of the animals. The 46-foot fin whale was found floating in the Blair waterway at the Port of Tacoma on the morning of August 7, 2009. Personnel from the Port of Tacoma, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Cascadia Research responded to assess the situation and arrange for relocation and examination of the carcass. The fin whale, a juvenile male, was towed on Friday evening by Dunlop Towing to a secured location on McNeil Island, a state prison island with authorized personnel only access and a 100-meter closed-water perimeter. Staff from Department of Corrections assisted biologists by securing the whale on the shoreline for an examination the following day.

The necropsy was conducted on August 8th by biologists and volunteers from Cascadia Research and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The whale was found to be in good post-mortem condition, allowing for a thorough exam. The animal had ample fat stores and there was evidence that it had recently eaten, suggesting good overall health. There was a large portion of the throat missing at the time it was initially sighted in Tacoma; and upon close examination there was no indication that this damage was caused by killer whales or sharks. There were at least two shattered ribs on the left side with associated hemorrhage, and significant signs of trauma in the chest cavity. These observations indicate that this whale was likely struck by a large vessel while alive. Samples have been collected and further analyses will be conducted in the coming weeks and months.

Fin whales, an endangered species, are not commonly seen in Puget Sound. They are the 2nd largest animal to have lived on earth, only slightly surpassed by the blue whale. This animal was a young fin whale measuring less than half the maximum length for this species. They occur widely in all oceans and are known to occur in coastal and offshore waters off the west coast of the US and Canada. This fin whale was probably struck and killed some distance from Puget Sound and carried in on the bow a ship. In some instances this has occurred without the knowledge of personnel on the ship and is sometimes only discovered when the ship reaches port. 

Ship strikes are a growing concern with several large whale species including the blue whale, a close relative of the fin whale. This is the 7th fin whale to be found in Washington inland waters since 2002—vessel collision was indicated in all seven cases. A recently published paper by Cascadia Research biologists and collaborators summarizes some of these past findings. Please click on the title below for PDF of full article:

Douglas, A.B., J. Calambokidis, S. Raverty, S.J. Jeffries, D.M. Lambourn, and S.A. Norman. 2008. Incidence of ship strikes of large whales in Washington stateJournal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 88:1121-1132.

Cascadia has on ongoing research study examining ways to reduce ship strikes of blue and fin whales off California, where a number of ship strikes have also been recorded. Click here for additional information on our research on blue whale ship strikes.

Below are photos taken of the whale where it was brought to shore immediately prior to the examination:

Head of stranded fin whale

Ventral side of stranded fin whale