Humpback Whale Spotted at Rio Del Mar Beach, Santa Cruz

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In early August a dead humpback whale washed up on Rio Del Mar State Beach in Santa Cruz.  Onlookers were saddened and disgusted by the great mound of decomposing flesh that appeared before them.  The stench was unbearable and only grew worse in the hot summer sun.  It appeared to be a young, 13-year-old, male and measured 36 feet.  Once notified by beachgoers, California State Parks and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), together, quickly sprang into action, initiating efforts to take samples and remove the carcass.

Photo credit: Shmuel Thaler photographer (Facebook)

Facts about humpbacks

Humpback whales are generally black with a smattering of white on their fins, bellies and tails.  They have a distinctive hump on their back, which is where they derive their name.   According to NOAA, humpbacks can grow to enormous proportions weighing up to 40 tons and measuring 60 feet.   Their lifespan is in the range of 80 to 90 years although many of these gentle creatures end up in harm’s way due to human activity. These beautiful whales live in the oceans around the world and travel great distances, carrying out one of the longest migration patterns of any mammal.  Humpbacks travel up to 5,000 miles from warm tropical waters where they breed to colder oceans where food is abundant.  Humpbacks have baleen, a filter-like structure in their mouth instead of teeth and feast off of anchovies and krill.

An endangered species

Prior to 1985, the populations of humpback whales decreased by an estimated 95% according to NOAA statistics.   Hunted to the brink of extinction for their baleen, meat and oil, humpbacks might have been lost forever.  They were labeled as an endangered species in the 1960’s and again under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.  In order to keep our oceans and these whales healthy for future generations to enjoy,  a moratorium was enacted by the International Whaling Commission to save these majestic creatures.  This intervention has resulted in increasing numbers of humpbacks.  Still we must continue to be aware and cautious of the threats they face such as entanglement in fishing gear, boat strikes, habitat degradation and ocean noise.  Our conservation efforts have been rewarded, according to because the humpback whale population has increased from an estimated 10,000 to 80,000 worldwide.  But sadly, there are now plans for certain countries, such as Japan, to allow for hunting to resume, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature and this would once again put these majestic mammals at risk.

How you can help the whales

In order to protect humpbacks we must understand exactly what threats they encounter.  As with the humpback that suffered an early demise and washed up on Rio Del Mar beach, it is of the utmost importance not to rush the removal of the whale carcass. This is a natural knee jerk reaction, but we need to be patient and support the authorities and scientists in their quest for more information and cause of death.  Oftentimes, marine researchers feel pressured to take samples and dispose of the body by towing it back out to sea quickly because the public does not want to see a dead whale on their beach.  But if the authorities can be given the time to perform a necropsy they would gain much more information thereby allowing for the preservation efforts to be targeted appropriately.  Unfortunately, the young Rio Del Mar humpback died in vain as his carcass was too decomposed to gain much insight and no cause of death could be established.

We encourage everyone that comes upon a dead animal that has washed up on the beach to report it as soon as possible.

Please be patient while scientists are gathering information and samples. And please understand that this animal may provide an invaluable clue as to how we humans can coexist together with marine life.  We hope you will get involved by helping us learn from dead animals so we can save ocean wildlife in the future!

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