The deaths of nine endangered fin whales (Balaenoptera physalushas) scientists puzzled and scratching their heads, with theories but no answers until data from samples taken from the whales is analyzed for the presence of biotoxins by a lab. The bodies of the fin whales were discovered floating in the area between Alaska’s Kodiak Island and Unimak Pass. Two of the whale carcasses washed up onto the shore of the island and samples were taken from one of the animals.
The culprit in the deaths of the fin whales might be something that they ate, but definitive results are not in yet. Fin whales were spotted in the area, according to officials from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), around the middle of May and sighting continued for about two weeks. Photographers took photos of the endangered animals.
Deborah Mercy, a spokeswoman from UAF, said that fin whales often feed close to each other as they travel in pods or small groups. Fin whales often travel alone but also travel in groups of two, three or more. Mercy is one of the scientists and researchers investigating the deaths of the fin whales who think that they might have all eaten something toxic.
Fin whales are members of the suborder of whales known as baleen whales. Because they are long and slender, fin whales have been called “The greyhound of the sea” by American naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews. The diet of the fin whales consists of crustaceans like copepods and krill, squid and small schooling fish.
Kate Wynne, an Alaska Sea Grant marine mammal specialist and professor from UAF, stated in a press release that the deaths of the whales “appears to have happened around Memorial Day weekend.” She added that it is unusual to see even the carcass of one dead fin whale “every couple of years.” Besides the dead fin whales, the carcass of a dead humpback whale was also discovered, but not in the same location on the shore of Kodiak Island.
Fin whales are the second largest whales alive, right after blue whales. They can get as long as 89.5 feet long (27.3 metres). There are at least two species of fin whales that have been recognized, the North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere varieties. They use the baleen that they have in their mouths to strain the food that they consume from the seawater. They often feed in tight formations.
Wynne finds a few things about the deaths of the whales to be puzzling or “perplexing,” as she put it. For instance, the fact that the mammals “all died around the same time.” Also, other than the humpback whale, all of the whales were “one species.”
Another aspect of the deaths of the whales that puzzles Wynn is that she wonders why “just fin whales” were found dead, and not the prey that the animals regularly consume, if they ate something toxic. Or, for that matter, if the prey that the mammals ate was toxic, other animals that also eat the same sort of prey should have have a “mass die-off,” as well.
Wynne has been working on the mystery of what is behind the deaths of the huge sea mammals in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) marine mammal stranding network. On May 23, the dead whales were photographed by crew members and officers aboard the ferry MV Kennicott, a ship operated by the Alaska Marine Highway System.
For the next two weeks, dead whales were reported in the area by pilots, fishermen and boaters. Based on both the reports and the photos, Wynne and the NOAA officials determined that at least nine of the whales had died. Their bodies are now floating on either side of Kodiak Island.
Wynne is still trying to figure out a “smoking gun” behind the deaths of the marine mammals, but the puzzle is not so easy to solve. She and the NOAA investigators are asking people in the region to report to them if they have noticed any dead fish, birds or other animals around, or anything else “that seems unusual to determine if it is related to the dead whales.”
Wynne and the other scientists and researchers are also collecting water samples to determine if “harmful algal blooms” are responsible, and they are “recording changes in sea water temperature.” So far, until they get the results back from the lab, they remain puzzled as to what caused the deaths of the nine fin whales.
Written and Edited By Douglas Cobb
Washington Post: At least 9 fin whales found dead near Alaska island
Science Recorder: Whales found dead in Alaska puzzle biologists
Summit County Citizens Voice: Environment: Scientists investigate
unusual spate of endangered fin whale deaths in coastal Alaskan waters
Photo Courtesy of Selbe <3’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License 2.0