Beaching leaves a whale of a mess at Little Dume

When a 41-foot-long fin whale washed up on shore below Little Dume early Monday last week, residents learned just how ineffective the best human efforts—even well-funded—can be compared to Mother Nature. 

Fin whales are the second-largest species on earth, and when the young male whale washed up dead on the rocky outcropping, he left the city with 41,000 pounds of problem to deal with. After decomposing for several days under sun, wind, pounding surf and hungry seagulls, residents were anxious to have the smell and the sad reminder of the sometimes-fatal human interaction with marine mammals just go away. 

Cindy Reyes, executive director of the California Wildlife Center, said the whale probably had been struck by a large shipping vessel, which fractured vertebrae in its spine. Because migrating whales tend to feed in local shipping lanes, this phenomenon has occurred not infrequently, and when the leviathans end up on shore, removing them is not an easy proposition. 

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“It’s a lot of whale,” Reyes said last Friday, while different agencies were considering what to do with the carcass. “It needs to be towed out to sea, but we need a really high tide to do that. Any other options for removing the carcass are not real effective.” 

By Saturday evening, fed up with bureaucratic bickering, a coalition of local homeowners, led by City Councilman John Sibert and businessman Bob Morris, paid a private tug towing company $8,000 to remove the dead whale. The removal options had seemed dim. 

Because of the whale’s location, arranging for heavy equipment to approach it was difficult. Burying the carcass was not practical at the rocky location. Cutting up whatever was left and hauling it elsewhere was also impractical simply because of its size. Meanwhile, nearby residents grew increasingly impatient that neither the city, the county, nor the state could offer a solution, with each claiming lack of jurisdiction. 

So the once-magnificent whale continued to degrade onshore till it became an unrecognizable mass of malodorous bones and blubber. Although it was not a total loss—on Friday, Native American Pechanga Tribe members harvested part of the whale’s remains under a federally approved permit, after performing a ceremonial tobacco offering to the whale. Using knives, the group cut parts of the whale’s vertebrae, blubber, ribs, sinew and mouth to use to make furniture, hairbrushes, rope and oil. 

Fin whales are listed as an endangered species, although their status is not as critical as other marine mammals around U.S. waters. Sarah Wilkin, the marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the population of North Atlantic right whales, for example, is down to perhaps 350 to 400 individual whales left on earth. 

“So the issue of any whales being struck by shipping vessels is of grave concern to us,” Wilkin said. “Reducing the number of strikes by seagoing vessels, whether they are pleasure craft or midsize ships or big oil tankers, is part of my agency’s job in protecting endangered species.” 

Wilkin said “collaborative” steps had been taken to reduce the speed of commercial shipping vessels within shipping lanes whenever whales were spotted, and that the agency issues alarms to area vessels when the creatures are present. 

“We work with the U.S. Coast Guard and the local Maritime Association to raise awareness of the issue,” Wilkin said. “But, compliance with requests to reduce speed are voluntary, and sometimes, there is just no way to determine if a whale is in the area. Nobody wants to hit a whale.” 

However, other than speed restrictions in place in the North Atlantic to protect that critical habitat, there are no regulations to control speed in U.S. shipping lanes in consideration of marine mammals. 

When a male fin whale washed ashore at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County last summer, a necropsy determined that external wounds and internal trauma were consistent with a ship strike. 

“This is another dramatic example of negative human impact on marine mammals,” Dr. Frances Gulland of the Marine Mammal Center in San Francisco said at the time. “The spine of this whale was completely fractured as a result of a ship strike and it is very sad that this animal’s life came to an end in this manner.” 

In June of 2011, several conservation groups filed a petition with the federal government to set mandatory speed limits for large ships traveling through California’s marine sanctuaries. 

The NOAA responded with a list of comprehensive strategies and outreach to the commercial shipping industry, mostly asking for voluntary compliance, to diminish speeds and enhance ocean-going vigilance of commercial vessels. 

Jim Oswald, Public Relations Manager for the Marine Mammal Center, said that ship strikes on whales continue to be a serious ongoing concern for his agency. 

“During our tenure (since 1975), we’ve rescued a lot of whales caught in nets and fishing equipment,” Oswald said. “But if a whale is hit by a cargo ship, there’s probably nothing you can do.” 

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