Posted by: The ocean update | April 16, 2015

Dead sperm whale washed ashore in Pacifica has signs of trauma (California, USA)

Tony Moreno touches the body of the whale on the beach in Pacifica, California Photo : AP

Tony Moreno touches the body of the whale on the beach in Pacifica, California Photo : AP

April 16th, 2015 (Erin Ivie and Katie Nelson). PACIFICA — Bay Area scientists remain perplexed as to what killed an adult sperm whale after they performed a necropsy Wednesday on the beached animal that was found dead the night before at Sharp Park State Beach.

The 49-foot whale was examined by nearly 20 veterinarians, marine biologists, researchers and student volunteers, all trying to determine how the whale died and how it got to the spot near Mori Point. Though the scientists said they might need the full day to determine a cause of death, they concluded early on that the whale, a male, was emaciated and exhibited signs of trauma.

However, Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Laura Sherr said late Wednesday that there were no broken bones, and while some hemorrhaging was found in the animal’s muscles, there was no indication of blunt force trauma from something like a ship strike.

Sherr also said squid beaks were found in the whale’s stomach, indicating the animal had eaten at some point shortly before it died roughly one week ago.

“This is a very intriguing investigation because of the solitary nature of this sperm whale — they don’t naturally beach themselves,” said Dr. Caitlin Brown, a veterinarian with The Marine Mammal Center. “And the fact that he’s a top predator and so emaciated is very concerning.”

Scientists finished the necropsy late Wednesday afternoon with no answers as to what led to the whale’s death, officials said. Tissue samples taken are not fresh enough to help solve the mystery, Scherr said. Instead, those samples will be used for a number of studies, she added.

The Marine Mammal Center has responded to 17 stranded sperm whales in its 40-year history, the last large one in Point Reyes in 2008, Sherr said. A 51-foot adult male found washed ashore was found to have more than 450 pounds of trash in his stomach, inspiring an art exhibit at the center’s headquarters demonstrating the importance of keeping trash from reaching the ocean.

Officials had not ruled out a similar fate for the Pacifica whale, saying his emaciation could possibly be the result of a digestive problem. Sherr noted that the beached whale is about 11 feet short of the average 60-foot length of an adult male and multiple tons short of the average 90,000 pounds.

But, such fears were quelled Wednesday afternoon during the exam, as no trash was found in the whale’s stomach.

The team of experts from The Marine Mammal Center, California Academy of Sciences, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Golden Gate Cetacean Research and UC Santa Cruz continued the necropsy into the afternoon and said they hoped to determine a cause of death before sundown.

“Although the ultimate cause of this sperm whale’s death will remain a mystery, what we’ve learned from his necropsy — including basic measurements, age, sex and diet — will contribute to our greater understanding of this endangered marine mammal species,” Lauren Rust, a research biologist at The Marine Mammal Center, said in a statement. “A sperm whale stranding is a rare event …” Still, spectators like San Bruno resident Jeri Mostafavi found themselves trying to explain to their families and young children how the stately animal being tossed about by the tides may have met such a tragic fate.

“It’s nothing that I’ve ever seen,” Mostafavi said, her 5-year-old daughter, Layla, looking on in sadness. “It’s just heartbreaking. … It really makes you wonder.”

It remains unclear why this particular whale died (AP)

It remains unclear why this particular whale died (AP)

Researchers with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network cut open the body of the whale on the beach (AP)

Researchers with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network cut open the body of the whale on the beach (AP)

"Disposing of a large marine mammal like this is no small feat," said Dr Claire Simeone, a vet at the Marine Mammal Center (AP)

“Disposing of a large marine mammal like this is no small feat,” said Dr Claire Simeone, a vet at the Marine Mammal Center (AP)

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