Autopsy: Ship killed humpback

Pregnant whale dies of head injury

Posted: Monday, July 23, 2001

A biologist who conducted an autopsy Sunday of the female humpback whale discovered floating off Point Gustavus on July 16 concluded it died from head injuries, probably from a collision with a cruise ship.

Francis Gulland, a marine mammal specialist from Sausalito, Calif., conducted an extensive examination of the whale on the beach, and found that its skull was "massively fractured," to the extent that one side of the neck was separated from the head, said Jed Davis, deputy superintendent of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Gulland confirmed the whale was a pregnant female.

"It was killed instantly in the water," Davis said.

Its carcass was discovered floating 55 miles northwest of Juneau, very near the entrance of Glacier Bay, by Janet Doherty, a whale researcher with the park. The whale had been in Glacier Bay many times.

"It was first spotted by researchers in 1979 as an adult, so we have a record on this whale, Whale No. 68 in our catalog," Davis said.

The whale, the first humpback in recent memory to be found dead in Glacier Bay, apparently met its end a week to 10 days ago. Authorities will compile a list of the vessels that were in the area between seven and 10 days ago, examine their ships' logs and talk to their captains to see if the ship that struck the whale can be identified, Davis said. Humpbacks are an endangered species, protected by federal marine mammal management policies and federal laws.

"With the information from Dr. Gulland, we will be taking this forward. We will be conducting interviews primarily with cruise ship captains," Davis said. "Dr. Gulland's knowledge of these issues tells her the death was caused by a very large ship like an oil tanker or a cruise ship. Most of our traffic here is cruise ships."

"There could be more than one penalty," Davis said. "We would need to determine if they knew they hit this whale or not, exactly where they hit the whale - inside or outside the park, and talk to any eyewitnesses. They would certainly need to notify us that they hit the whale. We would start there."

Anyone with information should call Davis at (907) 697-2691.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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