Agreement allows use of dead whale for research

Posted: Monday, July 03, 2006

SEWARD - Long-dead sperm whales smell.

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That's a hard fact to dispute. And Resurrection Bay had a big one - named PM0601 - bloated and floating south of Thumbs Cove.

But the stench didn't stop a dozen dedicated Alaska SeaLife Center scientists who plugged their noses, donned raingear and measured, cleaved and sampled the large, deceased beast.

The adolescent sperm whale was probably the same one seen floating near Montague Island earlier this spring, said Carrie Goertz, associate veterinarian at the SeaLife Center.

In an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the center is allowed to collect dead animals for study and live animals for rehabilitation.

The center last month received a report that the whale carcass was up against a beach just south of Thumbs Cove.

The center's stranding coordinator, Tim Lebling, along with Ed DeCastro and Jared Guthridge went out that evening and secured the whale to the beach.

The next day, Goertz put a team together and towed the whale to a more accessible beach.

The group looped ropes around the whale and pulled, while John Maniscalco, using the group's boat, pushed the floating portions onto shore.

"There was a lot of heave-hoing and timing with swells," Goertz said.

After they'd muscled the 35-1/2-foot whale as far onshore as possible, they waited for the tide to go out.

They had to stand in the rain, Goertz said, "watching the whale bob just out of reach."

With low tide, the necropsy began.

The animal autopsy team consisted of Millie Gray, Jeanette Nienaber, Holly Schroll, Jesse Collins, Christy Phillips, Nikki Nelson, Jen Lally, Emilee Holmes, Nikki Dinsmore-Williams, Jeff Roy, Bob Tenge and Pam Tuomi, senior veterinarian, "who continued to get samples from the whale even after it started rocking with the incoming tide," said Goertz.

The necropsy took about six hours, and it started with a series of measurements to age the whale and to judge its health.

"(To see) whether it was nice and fat," said Goertz.

There were teams of scientists peeling off layers of blubber, yanking teeth, sizing organs and siphoning off fluids.

Some of the tissue samples went to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to determine the animal's demise, though Goertz said PM0601 was probably too decomposed to know its end for sure.

University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum will house small sections of the whale's tissues in its tissue bank for future retrospective work.

NOAA and NMFS received skin samples for genetic testing. They will add the whale's genetic code to the animal database to see how they disperse.

Though much of the whale's skin was rubbed off, the team still could see sucker marks around its mouth and head; scars left from battles with squid, a primary food source for sperm whales.

The 3-inch-long teeth will be used for education and exhibit. A male sperm whale can grow teeth up to 8 inches long. PM0601's small teeth probably meant he was a juvenile.

The most useful samples were taken for toxicological testing, said Goertz. Blood, urine, liver, heart, muscle, blubber and spermaceti were all taken to measure levels of heavy metals and other toxins.

When the researchers finished their necropsy, PM0601 had been reduced to a toothless pile of guts and ribs. The remnants of the whale were then sunk in the bay, Goertz said. ---

The Alaska SeaLife Center operates a 24-hour hotline for the public to report stranded marine mammals or birds, and it encourages people who think they may have found a stranded or sick marine animal to call first at 1-888-774-SEAL and avoid touching or approaching the animal.

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