OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Gray whale washes up north of Florence

04/10/2009

NEWPORT, Ore. – For the second time in a month, a dead whale has been found on the central Oregon coast, but researchers at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center say it is unlikely the two deaths are linked.

On Thursday morning, a jogger reported a whale north of Florence on the beach near the popular Hobbit Trail and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network was notified. Jim Rice, an OSU researcher who coordinates the network, said the gray whale was a 43-foot adult female that apparently had just died. A necropsy revealed that the whale had what appeared to be an infected or cancerous ovary.

“We’re sending tissue samples to the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at OSU, so hopefully we’ll learn more,” Rice said. “But it looks like the whale succumbed to emaciation after a chronic disease.”

In early March, a fin whale beached itself near Heceta Head Lighthouse at Devil’s Elbow State Park. That whale, which measured 55 feet in length, weighed an estimated 50 tons. Though Rice said it was “somewhat malnourished,” it wasn’t emaciated to the extent of the gray whale. The cause of the fin whale’s death in March wasn’t clear, though it didn’t appear to have suffered an injury from a collision with a ship or predation by orcas. The scientists were unable to perform a necropsy because the whale was on a popular beach.

“It is unlikely the two are related,” Rice said. “Whales die for a variety of reasons – often of emaciation – but the root cause can be injury, disease or parasites.”

Beached whales aren’t exactly a rarity in Oregon, but they aren’t particularly common. Rice estimates that 4-5 dead whales are reported each year, but many of those are badly decomposed and likely washed ashore after dying in the ocean.

However, it is unusual to see a fin whale on the beach in Oregon. In going through 20 years of records, Rice could only find two previous references to a fin whale stranding.

Gray whales are much more common and frequently are seen just offshore. Rice said he believes this adult female was migrating north from Baja en route to Arctic summer feeding grounds when it died.

The Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network is a collaborative volunteer effort to respond to reports of sick or dead marine mammals – including whales, seals and sea lions – and report data about the strandings to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Partners in the network include OSU, Portland State University, the University of Oregon’s Institute for Marine Biology, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon State Police, the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation and others.