Malnutrition, ship strikes likely cause of spate of whale


A lack of feeding and in one case, a ship strike were likely the causes of death for a series of gray whales that washed ashore in the county through the summer.

Numbers are a bit higher than normal but less than they were in 2019, said Cascadia Research Collective’s stranding coordinator Jessie Huggins.

“It’s not terribly unusual,” Huggins said in a phone interview. “In the entire state of Washington this year we’ve had 13, which is higher than normal.”

Grays Harbor County has seen three whales drift ashore this summer, two in Ocean Shores and one in Westport. Two were dead before beaching, while one, landing at Damon Point, died soon after coming ashore.

“Where a whale washes up is not necessarily where it died,” Huggins said. “Unless they live-strand, it’s usually not where they died.”

The two stranded in Ocean Shores both displayed signs of emaciation and malnutrition; the one that live-stranded at Damon Point, a young female, displayed extensive emaciation and extensive parasitism, Huggins said. The other, which came ashore on the beachfront north of town, was an adult male, and displayed some signs of trauma, though the lay of the whale made it impossible to determine the extent of it, Huggins said.

The Westport fatality, a healthy young male, was likely killed by a ship strike, Huggins said, though stranding experts are unable to determine where the strike occurred. Both emaciation and ship strikes are regular causes for deaths, Huggins said.

“Those are pretty common findings,” Miller said. “In a normal year, we just see fewer of them.”

While there were none so far in Grays Harbor County this summer, predation by a transient pack of killer whales is also a common cause of death, Huggins said.

“We’ve seen some healthy animals like small calves that have been killed that way. There have been older animals that probably didn’t have the energy to fight them,” Huggins said. “Last year we had all those killer whales that came inside Puget Sound and were eating harbor seals galore.”

Killer whale kills on other whales are commonly identified by the marks the toothed whales leave, Huggins said; ripping out their victim’s tongues, damage to the lower jaw tissue, teeth marks on the flukes.

“We’ve been monitoring gray whale mortalities since 1977. It’s something that we’re always keeping an eye on,” Huggins said. “We’re getting more standardized data. We’re trying to look at things in the same way. That’s something positive that’s come out of this.”

Mortality event

Gray whales have been experiencing elevated numbers of strandings, leading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare an Unusual Mortality Event in 2019, when 216 whales washed ashore from Mexico to Canada. The cause for the spate of deaths is under investigation across three countries, Huggins said.

“Gray whales tend to migrate close to shore so we tend to see more gray mortality,” Huggins said. “We know it’s just a fraction of the mortalities.”

Numbers to date in 2023 are still above normal, but aren’t as dire as previous years.

“We’re still outside of our normal range,” Huggins said.

While the gray whales’ coastal migration patterns mean that more of them wash ashore, many more still will die at sea and sink to the bottom for benthic life to feed on without being seen by a human eye, Huggins said. The drift of whale corpses depends on a broad range of factors.

“It really depends on tides, currents, winds, and how many scavengers get to it,” Huggins said. “They can go very far depending on winds, currents and those things.”

The whales that washed ashore were variously buried or left to decompose on the beach, based on the ability to get heavy machinery out to their location to bury the corpse in sand. Sometimes it’s possible to tow the corpse somewhere, Huggins said, but that’s rarely a viable option on the oceanfront.

“Ocean Shores was buried, because that was an easy one to get to. The ones at Damon Point and the one at Westport were left to decompose naturally,” Huggins said. “Burial tends to be the only option on the outer coast, burial or natural decomposition.”

As the corpses decompose over months or years, interfering with the remains is a criminal offense. Anyone spotting a stranded animal should contact NOAA’s stranding hotline at 1-866-767-6114 and not touch the animal.

Contact Senior Reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@thedailyworld.com.

Clayton Franke / The Daily World file
A gray whale showing signs of severe emaciation drifted ashore while still alive at Damon Point on June 27.

Clayton Franke / The Daily World file
A gray whale showing signs of severe emaciation drifted ashore while still alive at Damon Point on June 27.

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