Recently, while I was walking my little dog on the beach near Oysterville, Washington, something caught my attention in the distance. Whatever it was, it was massive, and there was a lot of activity around it. I figured it was probably a dead whale and started walking a little faster up the beach. That’s when the stench hit me, but I kept walking anyway. Sure enough, it was a nearly 40-foot long adult gray whale, and I had arrived in the midst of its necropsy. A group of scientists and researchers were there to determine the cause of death. Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium and scientists from Portland State University and Cascadia Research Collective were among them. They surmised that it had already been dead for a couple of weeks.
Currently, gray whales are between their migration southward and their spring migration northward. Typically March is the starting point for their swim to Alaska. Soon it will be peak whale-watching time for the Washington and Oregon coast. Unfortunately, beached whales are relatively common, but they are still a sight to behold. As I watched them cut into its epidermis, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the whale and wonder what happened to him.
Looking carefully at the deceased whale, you could clearly see lice and barnacles covering the whale’s skin. Whale barnacles will not attach to any other species, and their life cycles are closely related to the migrations of the gray whale. Thousands of whales head southward to Mexico’s protected lagoons and turquoise bays during mating season. In the calm, warm water, the barnacles release their larvae. The larvae attach to the gray whales and stay attached unless they breach or scrape themselves on something to rid themselves of the barnacles. The circular white-colored formations on the skin are barnacle scars, left after they’ve come off. Whale experts often use these distinctive markings to ID and track whales.
Scattered amongst the many barnacles is a plethora of gray whale lice, a tiny crustacean specializing in living in crevices or wounds of the gentle giants. Technically, they’re parasites. But they aren’t true parasites because they have a symbiotic relationship. The crustaceans feast on the dead skin of the whale, which helps keep the whale healthy and can prevent skin infections. Mothers whales often spread their lice to their newborn calves as part of the lifecycle.
I let the crew continue their work undisturbed and watched in awe and sadness as they dissected the whale even further. The team removed considerable skin and even some of its intestines. Several days later, I called Booth to follow up. She said that the hemorrhaging in its head and damage to a shoulder area indicated that it was likely hit by a passing ship. It’s a common cause of death for these majestic creatures. I hope to see some live whales in the Pacific soon, spouting and working their way north, and will have to wait for nature to take its course of our deceased friend.