Injured Bryde’s whale in south Puget Sound (December, 2010)

In late November of 2010, repeated sightings of an injured whale were reported in south Puget Sound. It turned out to be an extremely unusual animal to find in these waters – a Bryde’s whale, which is a tropical species typically not seen in the eastern North Pacific north of Mexico or southern California. The entries below are in reverse chronological order and document the initial sighting of the whale by Cascadia Research and the eventual necropsy.

6 December 2010

The examination was successfully conducted today by a team of 12 coordinated by Cascadia Research but which included personnel from WDFW and NMFS. A fairly complete necropsy was completed with more than 100 tissues collected which included close examination of the injuries on the animal and an examination of most internal organs. Major findings included:

  1. The whale was an immature male measuring 34′ 5″ which externally appeared to be a female but which internal examination determined was a male. 
  2. There were at least five significant injuries on the whale, not just the two that were visible when the whale was alive. The most serious was the one visible when the whale was alive and a close examination of this showed that this blow was not only deep but had sheered off the top portion of at least two vertebra. While this injury appeared to be the likely cause of death of the animal, close examination confirmed the sighting reports that this injury had occurred many weeks or months previously.
  3. The cause of all the major injuries and death of the animal still appears to be one or more vessel strikes.
  4. The whale was not in great nutritional condition with a fairly thin and not very oily blubber layer.

Tissues collected from the animal will be tested in coming weeks and months for a variety of purposes including genetics, pathology, biotoxins, contaminants, disease screening, and nutritional status. These may reveal additional insights into this unusual animal but are unlikely to alter the conclusion on the primary cause of death.

Photos below show early stages of examination on 6 December 2010.

Baleen visible in open mouth of stranded Bryde's whale
Photo by Gretchen Steiger, Cascadia Research.
Research team measuring Bryde's whale
Photo by Gretchen Steiger, Cascadia Research.
Necropsy of Bryde's whale
Photo by Gretchen Steiger, Cascadia Research.

5 December 2010

The tow of the whale occurred successfully this afternoon from its stranding location near Totten Inlet to a remote site where a necropsy will be performed on Monday (see photos below). The tow was completed thanks to the assistance of Taylor Shellfish who provided a vessel (Carol T) and two crew to efficiently move the animals. Taylor Shellfish has helped move several previous whales including the previous Bryde’s whale that stranded in Puget Sound (see report from previous Bryde’s whale stranding which was considered unprecedented). A preliminary examination of the whale revealed at least two additional serious injuries on other parts of her body. It also revealed the top of the spinal process at the site of the large wound had been broken off.

Photos below show the tow operation.

Bryde's whale being towed from the beach.
Whale being pulled off beach at stranding location (photo by Alex Zerbini, Cascadia Research)
Bryde's whale being towed away from beach at stranding location
Bryde’s whale being towed away from beach at stranding location (photo by Alex Zerbini, Cascadia Research)

4 December 2010

The whale was reported dead on a beach this morning and was examined by Cascadia biologists before it was submerged by an incoming high tide. The preliminary examination showed the animal was a Bryde’s whale and had additional injuries other than those visible when it was alive. Arrangements are currently being made for possible relocation of the whale, if needed, and also for a complete examination that will be conducted in coming days. 

The three head ridges diagnostic of a Bryde's whale
Photo shows the three head ridges diagnostic of a Bryde’s whale (photo by Lisa Schlender, Cascadia Research).

3 December 2010

Sighting reports both on the 2nd and 3rd of December indicated the whale is staying in the same area and still showing similar behavior. Additional photographs are being obtained to evaluate the status and any changes. Cascadia has been corresponding with other whale experts about: 

  1. trying to determine the species (still considered to be either a sei or Bryde’s whale), 
  2. the cause of the injuries (there is agreement that one of the injuries is clearly from a boat propeller but the cause of the major injury is not certain), 
  3. the severity and prognosis for the whale given the injuries (likely to be fatal but still possible it could survive),
  4. any options for assisting the whale (keeping boaters away and possible consideration of trying to deliver antibiotics)

It is difficult to see an animal with this type of serious injury and many of us are concerned to see an animal likely experiencing pain and suffering. The option of euthanizing the animal which might seem like a humane option is actually quite difficult legally, ethically, and logistically for several reasons:

  1. the animal may survive this injury and we have seen some other individuals of other species survive serious injuries like this and even successfully reproduce therefore killing a potential endangered species which might survive could be a detriment to the population,
  2. euthanizing a whale even when it is beached and on shore (let alone swimming and difficult to approach) is difficult and could increase the suffering of the whale. Doses of chemicals to kill a whale are not easily determined and have often been unsuccessful and use of guns could just increase the suffering and not be lethal (witness what this animal has already survived).
  3. there are major dangers associated with either trying to poison/drug the whale or shoot it. The use of euthanasia drugs, even if successfully administered, would render to body toxic in death and would pose a substantial risk to scavengers that may feed on the carcass if it cannot be quickly removed from the environment and disposed of safely. Use of high power ballistics close to shore and developed areas would be a major safety issue.

For now we will continue to monitor the whales progress and evaluate options for action if deemed appropriate. This will be done in consultation with National Marine Fisheries Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who are also monitoring the situation.

1 December 2010

There have been repeated sightings of an injured whale in south Puget Sound over the last week going back to at least 25 November 2010 and possibly as early as 13 November. There had been earlier reports that could be the same whale but were in a different area and did not report the injury. Both shore based observation and a boat survey were conducted by Cascadia Research on 1 December to try and determine the species of whale and detail the injury. The whale was photographed late in the afternoon of 1 December in Totten Inlet. The species while not certain appears to be either a sei (pronounced like say) or Bryde’s (pronounced “broo-dess”) whale either of which would be extremely unusual in southern Puget Sound. The sei whale is endangered and rarely seen off the US West Coast and only then in offshore waters. The Bryde’s whale is a more tropical species typically not seen in the eastern North Pacific north of Mexico and southern California although there was one animal that was sighted numerous times then stranded in southern Puget Sound earlier this year (see previous stranding report). The whale was not surfacing normally in part due to injuries apparently caused by collision with a boat. The most likely cause appeared to be a strike/collision with a fast moving twin engine vessel or possibly two separate collisions. One injury is clearly from a spinning propeller. The other separate injury was most likely from another propeller that caused serious deep injuries across the top of the back and extending down to the spinal processes. Estimated length was about 40 feet. Please report any sightings of this animal to Cascadia Research at 360-943-7325 (or 800-747-7329 outside the area).

Photos of the injuries on the whale are shown below.

Right side of injured Bryde's whale in south Puget Sound
Right side of whale. Photo by John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research.
Left side of injured Bryde's whale in south Puget Sound
Left side of whale. Photo by John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research.
Wound close up
Photo by John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research.
Head of injured whale
Whale’s head. Photo by Lisa Abdulghani, Cascadia Research.
Wound from the left side.
Wound shown from left side. Photo by Megan Warren, Cascadia Research.