Beached whale, 'black gold' for scientists, draws a crowd in Anchorage

Published: Sep. 26, 2017 at 7:17 PM AKDT
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When a whale beaches, a crowd gathers.

At least that's what happened on Tuesday after a humpback yearling washed up on the shore of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, accessible from Kincaid Park.

Some trekked the mile and a half to a gravelly beach for the love of science, trying to discern what killed the young creature or seizing the strange sight as a teachable moment for curious kids.

Others just wanted a glimpse of the animal, which was first spotted floating dead in Cook Inlet two weeks ago.

Carrie Goertz is a marine mammal veterinarian for the Alaska Sealife Center who was part of a team that spent several hours performing a necropsy. Even though peeling back skin and blubber is a messy and smelly process, beneath are priceless clues, a black gold of sorts.

The skull is of particular interest, and perhaps the biggest treasure trove is a whale's earwax, which is similar to a tree's rings. Layers transition from dark to light, indicating periods of growth, giving a strong estimate of the creature's age, revealing its biological and chemical history, and so on.

That lets researchers figure out if contaminants were present in the whale, the animal's stress level, and many other data points that help develop broader understanding of humpbacks and the oceans they swim in.

"Even though it's been dead a long time, we can still learn a lot," Goertz said. "It helps us understand what's going on with the species, understand what's going on in Cook Inlet, and then helps us better manage and care for these animals."

An early guess for the Kincaid whale is that it may have collided with a boat, though the true cause will only be known after a series of tests in conduct. A few dozen tests are planned, using skin, blood, blubber, and bone samples to piece together any hint of what killed this animal and whether or not other humpbacks may be at risk.

Kristen Taylor runs the Facebook group Anchorage and Mat-Su Tiny Trekkers, and she led a group of dozens of parents who brought their young kids out to look at the animal and watch the necropsy.

"We had a couple dozen moms and dads show up," she said. "We basically just wanted to get out of the house and show these toddlers this amazing experience of this whale. We talked about how, this whale is dead, but imagine it out in the ocean. Seeing it like this, you really get a perspective of how big they are."

"My grandson, he said, 'Nana, a whale is the size of a school bus,'" added Elaine Peters of Nebraska, who is visiting family here and brought her three grandkids to the beach.

The increased attention can be positive, but there are also risks of having many people in close proximity to the beached whale.

Marine mammals can carry diseases that get people and pets sick, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cautioned.

Joe Meehan, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, also pointed out that there was enormous damage done to the bluff last year after another whale washed ashore.

"My worry is that with upcoming higher tides it will refloat the whale, and with prevailing southwest winds, it will push it into the marsh below the motocross track where last year’s whale ended up," Meehan said. "If that happens, we’ll likely see significant impacts to the trail down the bluff which we repaired from last year’s damage."

And don't forget the bears that roam the Anchorage park, drawn to a smell that all the visitors are sure to remember: a stench that is something like old seafood, rotting meat, and sewage left in a dumpster inside a high school locker room.