Dead whales do tell tales

 

Just as 2012 was ending, a dead fin whale washed up on a beach in Malibu, Calif. A rare emissary from the ocean as well as an endangered species, it gave people in the area several things to consider.

The first was the sheer wonder of whales. Fin whales are the second-largest animal on Earth, reaching 80 tons and 85 feet long. This one, only two years old, was already the size of a school bus. Curious people came to see its streamlined shape, two blowholes and massive mouth capable of filtering up to 15,000 gallons of ocean water in a single gulp.

But after a necropsy and a few days of battering surf and pecking gulls, the whale quickly became less recognizable. It also emanated a stench so strong that it wafted into a local restaurant and the wealthy estates atop a nearby bluff.

That switched the focus from a sense of wonder about whales to wondering how to dispose of a giant dead one. People debated towing it out to sea or burying it, and argued over who would foot the bill. The one consensus was not to blow it up. To learn why, search “exploding whale” online to watch Oregon transportation workers in 1970 dynamite a dead sperm whale. The explosion launched blubber nearly a quarter mile, including one giant slab that crushed an Oldsmobile.

Our clumsy disposal response tells us something truly interesting, because dead whales have always washed ashore in California, which was once home to about 10,000 grizzly bears -- more than any state except Alaska. To grizzlies, whales were dinner. Four hundred miles north of Malibu, at a gallery in Oakland, Calif., artist Laura Cunningham imagines the scene in a current exhibit called Before California. It includes an acrylic of gulls, eagles and seven grizzlies feeding on a beached gray whale, with one even exiting a hole in the whale’s side.

So the whale washed ashore in Malibu was a tendril of a severed connection between land and sea. Nearby, the grizzly bear honored on California’s state flag fluttered in a breeze, seeming to reach toward the whale.

The connection between bears and whales survives farther up the coast. A couple of years ago, a friend drifted his small tour boat close to a dead humpback whale that had washed up in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. A client with binoculars pressed to her face swore the whale was moving. My friend Bill took up his binoculars, probably stalling to think of a polite response. Suddenly, he, too, saw the whale jiggle. Next, a 600-pound brown bear walked out of its mouth, then gave a robust shake, casting arcs of whale fat from its fur.

Even farther north, whales are still connected to human diets, as they always were. After successful bowhead whale hunts by Alaska natives in places like Barrow and Kaktovik, polar bears arrive to pick the bones.

The Malibu whale also speaks of modern challenges. The necropsy revealed injuries likely caused by a large ship, something that appears increasingly common. Six months earlier, a 50-foot fin whale washed up dead at Point Reyes, near San Francisco, with fractured ribs and vertebrae, also caused by a ship. A pregnant blue whale with similar fatal injuries was among five victims of collisions off California in 2010. And container ships and cruise ships in recent years have arrived in ports from San Francisco to Juneau with lifeless whales wedged against their bows.

Recently, officials announced plans to re-route shipping into Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay, among the world’s busiest ports, to protect whales. They also plan to create a monitoring program, where trained ship personnel will issue alerts about whales in shipping lanes. Whales face other hazards, too. Ocean acidification from burning fossil fuels threatens the krill and small fish central to their diets, while sonar from Navy drills and gas exploration deafen some animals. Entanglement in fishing gear is common, resulting in one dramatic gray whale rescue near Southern California last April. Marine garbage is another problem: In Washington, also in April, a dead gray whale necropsy revealed a bellyful of trash, including sweatpants, a golf ball, plastic shards and over 20 plastic bags.

But the Malibu whale also tells us about resiliency. Considering the species’ slow reproduction and the efficiency of the whaling era, it’s almost miraculous that any survived. But thanks to the Endangered Species Act and other measures, they thrive in some places. In southeast Alaska, the humpback population leaps by 4 percent or more annually. As may be happening along with West Coast now, too, the whales turn up in new places, teaching us about our homeland and changing our behaviors.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He writes in south-central Alaska.