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Science gets whale of a chance

After days of waiting, scientists have opportunity to dissect humpback

Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2005

 

  Jason Wettstein from the Alaska SeaLife Center, left, gets ready to help Dr. Pam Tuomi, right, gather organ samples Tuesday from a beached humpback whale calf that washed up the Kenai River by the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge in Kenai on Sunday. Scientists will analyze the samples to determine the cause of death. Photo by Layton Ehmke

Jason Wettstein from the Alaska SeaLife Center, left, gets ready to help Dr. Pam Tuomi, right, gather organ samples Tuesday from a beached humpback whale calf that washed up the Kenai River by the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge in Kenai on Sunday. Scientists will analyze the samples to determine the cause of death.

Photo by Layton Ehmke

Knee deep in mud and shoulder deep in blood, scientists and volunteers carefully cut away at the innards of the washed-up humpback whale calf just north of the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge on the Kenai River in Kenai.

The whale that eluded the team since Sunday was reached Tuesday at low tide. National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Barbara Mahoney was worried there wouldn't be enough time to get to the remains while it was still fresh. Mahoney said Monday she would wait one more tide cycle to get to the whale. The whale had been found by a whale spotting volunteer who buoyed it to the shore Monday and, as luck had it, the tide cooperated Tuesday.

The scientists were busy collecting tissue samples and answering questions for the scores of passers-by who parked along Bridge Access Road to walk down to the site.

One child asked if it would be safe to eat part of the whale carcass.

"This meat is a little bit old to eat," said Pam Tuomi, veterinarian with the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, as she continued to dig out a sample from deep within the carcass.

Mahoney said humpbacks, a type of baleen whale, are an endangered species not often found in upper Cook Inlet. She said it's uncommon for the whales to be as far north as the Kenai River and that finding the cause of death is important.

Jason Wettstein, public relations director for the SeaLife Center, had been helping heave the mandible from the carcass when he took a break to comment on the data collection process.

"Well, we've been busy taking samples of the organs. We've got samples of the liver, the stomach, heart and brain. The brain looks kind of like a soup. I'm 6-foot-3, and the heart is as big as my entire chest cavity and torso," he said of the 27-foot-long whale.

Tuomi estimated the total poundage of samples taken from the specimen to be around 20 pounds but said it's not the weight of the samples, it's the variety and number that matter.

"It's important to study as many species as possible because some of these sea creatures are still very mysterious to us," Wettstein said.

When asked if the smell had been a factor in the day's work, Wettstein laughed and said, "Can you print me laughing?"

Tuomi said the crew would finish taking the samples by high tide Tuesday. Although no initial cause of death has been determined, the samples taken should reveal that answer in the near future. Tuomi said the tissues are going to a veterinarian histopathologist for a microscopic scan to find the cause.

Wettstein said there has been a steady crowd of people who came to get a look at the whale.

"They're interested and asking a lot of questions. That's all part of the research. You learn more about the species in general by studying individual species. This is exciting for us," he said.

While the science team only collects a small amount of the animal for research, they leave behind a large heap of carcass and the question of what will happen to the rest of it.

Whale sample gathering, volunteer Cy St-Amand said nobody claimed the rest of the remains of the whale.

"Due to the nature of the situation, it was really too late for anyone to call dibs on it. Not many groups are capable of removing it," he said. "There was one Native man who went through the proper channels to come and collect some bone. As for the rest of it, I imagine the two local coyotes I've seen close by as well as the eagles and whatever else are waiting for us to pack up and leave."

St-Amand said the team was on the last stretch of the collection process Tuesday evening.

"Now we're trying to locate the ear bone, which will define the exact age of the animal."

Trudging around in the mud, hauling whale fat down to the river and cutting deep into the flesh of the animal wore out members of the team.

"Pam has more energy than all of us combined out here," St-Amand said. "It's a good crew of volunteers out here working hard alongside. Well, I've got to get back to sharpening knives."



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