Big blue mystery

blue whaleHas anyone else been following the plight of the blue whales? Last weekend, when that huge blue whale washed up onto a beach near Ventura (LAT, VCS) I seriously wanted to go out and see it for myself. The day I could have gone out to do that, though, was Monday, and it was buried Sunday so that was a big oh well.

Well, a third whale (besides a second, headless one that floated down to Mexico from Long Beach) has been towed to shore for a necropsy. Sheesh! What is going on that these huge, majestic creatures (check out how small that woman is compared to the whale) are dying???

One theory that a coworker posed yesterday was the Navy’s decision to use sonar in the ocean off of Southern California. She believes the sonar is throwing the whales’ sense of direction into shipping lanes, sending them into major traffic. And, its true, its been determined that all three whales have been killed by ship strikes. But another theory is that domoic acid may be to blame for the whales’ deaths, according to an email sent to our assignment desk.

I’m going to copy and paste the entire email here so you can read it for yourself.

Photo lifted from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Sent: Saturday, September 22, 2007 8:07:20 PM
Subject: MEDIA ALERT>>>Confirmed: Ship Strikes Kill Three Blue Whales Off Southern California Coast


Confirmed: Ship Strikes Kill Three Blue Whales Off Southern California Coast

Working Theory is Possible Domoic Acid Poisoning


NOAA is asking the public to notify the Marine Mammal Stranding Network of any floating whales seen in Southern California waters. Please contact the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History <> at 805-682-4711 ext. 157.

General Information About the Third Whale
· ID Tag: SBMNH 2007-20
· Stranding Location: Near Platform Gail and floated to south of Platform Grace
· Size: About 60-65 feet long
· Gender: Male (subadult)
· Cause of Death: Ship Strike
· Necropsy: Completed September 22, 2007

Tracking the Third Blue Whale
· September 19, 2007 at about 3:00 PM: Whale first reported by private boater in the Santa Barbara Channel. Estimated to be about 60 feet long.
· September 20, 2007 at 1:30 PM: Whale reported to have been at Platform Gail
· September 20, 2007 at about 4:45 PM: Located by Island Packers and reported to be about 70-75 feet long, fresh with no noticeable external trauma. Observers saw three blue sharks and one great white shark feeding on the animal. Boat captain predicts animal will continue on course to Hobson/Faria area.
· September 21, 2007 at 9:00 AM: The whale was relocated by Island Packers to be floating off Platform Gail.
· September 21, 2007 at 1:03 PM: The whale is now floating south of Platform Grace.
· September 21, 2007 at 3:00 PM: The whale is towed to Pt. Mugu Family Beach by Channel Water Marin of Ventura, CA.
· September 22, 2007 at 6:30 AM: The whale arrives at Pt. Mugu and the necropsy is completed at about 5:00 PM.

About the Necropsy of the Third Blue Whale

The necropsy of the third dead Blue Whale was completed Saturday, September 22 at about 5:00 PM. Some of the whale’s soft tissue remains were buried at Pt. Mugu Family Beach, but most of the carcass was towed by boat into the ocean’s currents and released into the sea. Given the extent of the excavation of the whale, it is anticipated the carcass will fill with water and sink.

Preliminary results of the necropsy indicated that the whale died of a ship strike. The cranium was essentially smashed and there was extensive damage to the skeleton, such that during the excavation process broken ribs were falling out. The bones showed discoloration and uneven breaks indicating that the whale was alive at the point of impact with a large ship. Also, there were large dark stains in the muscle and tissue indicating that the whale bled internally and death was instant. There was no evidence of sonar damage found.

Standard measurements and collection of tissue and samples were completed. The data and samples will be processed for further analysis to help determine why the whale made impact with a large ship. A highlight of the necropsy was that the team collected fresh bone marrow giving the Museum potentially the first stem cells of a Blue Whale.

Unusual Strandings

In September 2007, there have been three dead Blue Whale Strandings off the Southern California Coast due to ship strikes. It was reported the week of September 9 that there about 100 Blue Whales in the Santa Barbara Channel and that their primary food source (krill) was prevalent in the shipping lanes.

· September 8, 2007: Subadult male in Long Beach Harbor
· September 14, 2007: Subadult female in Ventura County, Hobson County Beach
· September 21, 2007: Subadult male in Ventura County, Platform Gail/Platform Grace

The Museum began collecting stranding data in 1975, and the first Blue Whale stranding recorded was in 1980. Since then, there have been seven Blue Whale strandings in the Tri-County area (Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo); so having three Blue Whales strand so close together is unusual and raises the question “Why?” Until final results of the necropsy are received, the working theory is that domoic acid may be a contributing factor to the whales’ deaths.

Domoic acid is a toxin associated with certain algal blooms. In April 2007 NOAA Fisheries <> (the federal agency responsible for the conservation and management of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions) designated an official “Unusual Mortality Event (UME).” The designation means that scientists have determined that the occurrences/deaths (beginning in April 2007) are significantly more numerous than is customary in the region and therefore a more comprehensive investigation is warranted. The April 2007 UME issued is still open.

NOAA is asking the public to notify the Marine Mammal Stranding Network of any floating whales seen in Southern California waters. Please contact the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History at 805-682-4711 ext. 157.

Next Steps

As a member of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History will coordinate the analysis of the samples and data. The Marine Mammal Stranding Network will be looking into the working theory about the role domoic acid may have had in these three Blue Whale deaths and strandings. To test for domoic acid, stomach contents, fecal and urine matter, and blood samples will be analyzed. The earliest results can be received is about four weeks from now.

I don’t know about anybody else, but this is utterly fascinating to me. To pore over more of this stuff, check out the (very graphic) photos and video from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s blue whale page and graphic video, photos and coverage from the Ventura County Star. I’ll also include a video I cut today from work.