Researchers studying spike in dead whales found in Washington waters

Researchers say they've seen a spike in whale deaths in Washington waters over the last three weeks. They''ve found a common threat which has contributed to all the deaths: humans. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - Spectators on a whale watching boat were shocked to see a powerboat hit a grey whale just off shore of Whidbey Island in late April.

Within the two weeks, researchers discovered a grey whale calf off the coast of Washington, near the mouth of the Columbia River entangled in gear of a Dungeness crab pot.

A cargo ship heading until Tacoma was unaware that it hit a fin whale on its bow during the same time. The whale's carcass was towed to the shoreline and left to decompose, victim of a ship strike.

It’s what researchers call "strandings" and Cascadia Research, which tracks the path of whales along with their populations and their conflicts, said they’ve had five this year. There’s at least one big common factor: humans.

“Those numbers aren't unusually high,” said Cascadia Research Founder John Calambokidis. “What's been a little bit unusual is that we've had a little spat of incidences that demonstrate some of the challenges they face.”

Adding to the list, a mature grey whale found floating dead in Bellingham Bay. It was towed to a remote beach were Calambokidis and his team did a necropsy.

"What was a little bit unusual about it, it turned out to be an older female, maybe 40 or more years old,” said Calambokidis.

He said typically it’s younger whales that are found dead floating in Puget Sound.

“We didn't find an obvious cause of death but she was in very poor health, had a very dry blubber layer,” said Calambokidis.

He said there have been several other grey whale deaths in which he and his team have not figured out a cause of death.

“But, all of those, entanglement, small boat, large ships show some of the big challenges these whales face and we've just had a run of these in the last couple of weeks,” he said.

The respected whale researcher has just returned from a conference in California that addressed a growing problem of whale entanglements that could lead to fishing restrictions in the future.

“The entanglements are a little bit more of a puzzle because they've seen a more sudden spike off the west coast, just off the coast over the last two years,” said Calambokidis.

He said there’s been an increase in the whale population and a fairly new practice of local grey whales feeding in shallower waters than in the past.

Researchers are currently looking for a grey whale that was first spotted off Dana Point, Calif. with a metal cage around its head. They believe it’s swimming north and may have arrived in Washington State waters.

The whale that was struck by the powerboat has been spotted alive with a deep cut in its back.

Calambokidis said it’s a whale they have followed for 27 years and it frequents the north sound area. It’s one that started feeding in shallower waters and now has a reminder of how dangerous it can be.

If anyone sees a whale caught up in rope or wires, you are asked to call the NOAA Entangled Whale Hotline at 1-877-SOS-WHALE.

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