An adult male fin whale washed up dead about three miles south of the Ocean City beach approach late Wednesday afternoon, a rare occurrence for a whale usually found in deep waters. Marine researchers worked between tides Thursday to perform a necropsy on the massive 68-feet long whale.
Cascadia Research Collective, which assisted the state Department of Fish and Wildlife with the exam, reported the whale was apparently killed when a ship struck it. The whale was “moderately decomposed with most of its skin missing,” and may have been dead a week before it washed ashore.
The whale appeared to have been healthy before it was struck, and had recently eaten. Fin whales eat small fish and krill.
Dyanna Lambourn, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife marine mammal research biologist on the scene, said the whale was similar to one that was found in Puget Sound in April near Burien, also believed to have been killed by a ship. Fin whales are listed as endangered.
Fin whales are common in this area, but Cascadia research biologist John Calambokidis said he’s only seen about 12 washed up like this in as many years.
“They generally feed in off-shore waters, so you generally wouldn’t see them closer than about 40 or 50 miles off shore,” he said.
The species is considered “highly vulnerable to ship strikes,” Calambokidis said. Cascadia reported the whale near Ocean City is the eleventh whale stranded on the Washington coast since 2002, and ship strikes have been indicated in nine of those cases.
“In addition to these documented cases, scientists suspect that these may only represent a tenth or less of the true number occurring since most whales that die never wash ashore and either sink or drift offshore,” the release stated.
The whale was found between Ocean City and Copalis Beach and spotted in the water and reported to state Parks rangers, who monitored the whale throughout the night until researchers could get to the site in the morning.
Fin whale sightings are fairly rare along the inner coast, and they are known as pelagic, which means they normally spend their lives in the open ocean and deep water, Lambourn said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, fin whales are the second-largest species of whale, with a maximum length of about 75 feet. Fin whales can live 80-90 years and are often found in deep waters of all major oceans, primarily in temperate to polar latitudes.
“This is quite an experience,” said onlooker Scott Shropshire from Lakewood, who was staying in Ocean Shores and saw a posting on Facebook. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I wonder what they are going to do with it?”
Samples of its tissue, its stomach contents and other specimens were taken Thursday after noon by Fish and Wildlife and Cascadia in order to determine a cause of death.
“It’s not uncommon for these big whales to get struck by ships, particularly because they eat on the surface,” said Robin Lindsey, a first responder for Seal Sitters and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and photographer.
Schmidt said the whale is not believed to be a health hazard, but the smell of the decomposing carcass can be fairly overpowering. He said the whale typically would weigh about a ton for every foot in length.
Ocean City State Park is expected to coordinate removal and disposal of the whale, but a plan has not yet been announced.