Saturday, April 17 2010 @ 05:42 AM EDT
Contributed by: terrytvgal
Originally printed at http://www.komonews.com/news/local/90957649.html
SEATTLE - Scientists are planning to cut open and examine a newly dead gray whale found on a local beach in hopes it can provide insight into what's killing so many of the large marine mammals in Puget Sound this year.
"The advantage of this whale is that it is a freshly dead whale," Brian Gorman, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries in Seattle, said Thursday in an interview with KOMO News Radio's Corwin Haeck.
"Frequently whales are a week old or longer before we get a chance to do a necropsy. This one apparently died just last night, and so many of the organs will be in very good condition."
In the past 10 days, five dead gray whales have been found - four in Puget Sound waters and the fifth near Vancouver, B.C. Three of those have died just in the past week.
Gorman said that is an unusually high number in such a short time span, and scientists aren't sure what is causing the high death rate.
"In a typical year ... we get five to 10 dead gray whales over the course of spring, summer and early fall," he said. "It is unusual to get so many coming in so quickly one right after another."
Gorman said the most recent whale death happened on a beach just south of Fauntleroy. Residents said the gray whale was still alive when it beached itself, then quickly died within a half-hour.
Scientists have been at the site since early morning, measuring the whale and making some basic observations. They have determined the whale is a female.
Next the animal's huge carcass will be towed to a secure location, where a full necropsy can be performed.
"They cut into the carcass and remove some parts for later analysis," Gorman said.
"It's pretty messy, as you might imagine, and it's on a scale that is larger than anything that people are used to," he added.
Gorman said scientists will be trying to determine whether any kind of toxic chemical might be involved in the whales' deaths, or whether they simply died of starvation, parasites, disease or some other cause.
It could take weeks or even months before results are available - and even then they might not point to a specific cause od death, he said.
"Sometimes we're able to do that, and sometimes we're not," Gorman said. "It just depends on how lucky we are and how good the material we collect is."
One rumored possible cause of the whale deaths - attacks by transient killer whales - has been all but ruled out, Gorman said.
He said the transient whales, which occasionally enter Puget Sound, typically feed on seals and sea lions. They might go after a smaller juvenile gray whale, but not an adult.
"They usually don't attack healthy adult whales - they're just too big and too robust to be worth their effort," he said.
Gorman said the cluster of whale deaths won't threaten the overall health of the gray whale population, which has recovered significantly since the whales were taken off the endangered species list.