ANCHORAGE - A ship probably struck a humpback whale whose carcass was seen floating near the mouth of Yakutat Bay in mid-May, according to a federal biologist who examined the animal.
The whale was struck with enough force to sever its skull from its spine, said Michael Payne, head of protected resources with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau. Payne led an examination team after the whale washed ashore near Icy Bay.
An exam on Monday by three veterinarians found signs of internal bleeding along the whale's right side, indicating it was alive when hit, Payne said. Part of the skull on that side had shattered and the internal organs were damaged.
Humpbacks are an endangered species, protected by federal law.
The vets could not directly examine the fatal wound because the rapidly decomposing carcass was lying on its back on the beach. The 47-foot female probably weighed more than 30 tons.
The team also was not able to figure out how long the whale had been dead. It was first seen near Point Manby on May 15 or 16 by bush pilot Les Hartley. The carcass drifted northwest May 17, when it was photographed trailing some debris. It beached May 18 near the Yahtse River.
A pilot landing on the beach by the whale that day reported it was still fresh and didn't smell, Payne told the Anchorage Daily News.
The whale could have been hit out in the Gulf of Alaska and drifted ashore or could have been hit closer to Yakutat or in the bay. The U.S. Coast Guard doesn't keep track of general vessel traffic in the gulf, a spokeswoman said.
"If you hit a whale (in protected waters), you're going to know it," said Dale Collins, president of the Southeast Alaska Pilots' Association, which provides pilots for ships entering certain Alaska waters such as Yakutat and Glacier bays. "But it could be a ship hit it offshore and maybe didn't know it hit it because it was in a heavy swell."