Dead Baby Gray Whale Washed Up on Poche Beach

If you live in Southern California you have a very good chance of seeing a gray whale.  These whales are born in the lagoons of Baja California at the beginning of the year and then in the spring migrate up the coast to Alaska to feed.  .

Unusual mortality event (UME)

Beginning in 2019, these whales have become part of an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) which is defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act as a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off, and demands an immediate response.  This UME already involves more than 100 whales and counting. One example of this happened right here on Poche Beach in San Clemente during the start of the migration back in March.  A baby gray whale washed up on the beach and was taken to the Los Angeles County Museum’s facility so that a necropsy could be performed to determine the cause of death.

The necropsy was performed under the guidance of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staffer – Justin Greenman. This critically important task is essential for NOAA to determine the underlying cause of the UME and possibly any preventive measures that may be able to be taken.

A dead whale washed up on shore in San Clemente on Friday, March 6, before being hauled off to be examined for cause of death. (Photo courtesy of Matt Larmand)

Wildlife research

Researchers follow protocol by completing official forms as they examine the animal.   Based on the size of the whale, a preliminary determination was made that this whale was only one to two months old.  The first necropsy cut measured the thickness of the whale’s blubber.  Sadly, this was only about an inch thick.  This thin layer indicates that the baby was malnourished. While your family may stock up on a few gallon jugs of milk for the week, baby gray whales typically drink 50 gallons of milk a day for their first seven to eight months of life. They should put on about 30 pounds a day and grow one foot per month during their first year. Based on the state of this baby, it is quite possible that she had not eaten at all since birth.  Perhaps the mother was undernourished as well and that is why the baby could not feed.  We do not know because the baby was separated from its mother which is strange as the two would usually stay close to each other during this migration up the coast.  The mother could have died perhaps from a ship strike or getting entangled in fishing gear as both are common threats to whales as they travel through these waters.

As the researchers continued to cut into the body to see the organs, there was a bright red spot by the pancreas that could have signified a blow to the calf.  Samples from the animal were collected to be sent off to the lab for further study.   After six hours, all that was left was a blood-soaked floor, and large buckets containing the pieces of the whale that were to be disposed of, and the stench of a dead whale.

It is not glamorous work but hopefully, the information gathered from this necropsy and others will help NOAA determine what is causing the high number of deaths of this species.  You can help by reporting any gray whales that you see.  Starting in November the whales will be making their way back down the California coastline to Baja and as they pass our shores, you may spot them.  We would like to know if you see healthy-looking whales as well as injured or dead whales.  All of this information is important to understanding what is happening with this species.

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