Biologist says whale likely killed by ship

Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) 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 that it had been alive when hit, Payne said. Part of the skull on that side had shattered and the internal organs were disrupted.

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 on May 17, when it was photographed trailing some debris. It beached on 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.

It wasn't clear whether the whale could have been hit out in the Gulf of Alaska and drifted ashore or had 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 like 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.''

The only two large vessels known to enter Yakutat Bay during the previous week the 866-foot cruise ship Mercury and the Alaska state ferry Kennicott did not report hitting any whales.

Federal officers probably wouldn't open a formal investigation into the whale's death without more information, Payne said. ''From the enforcement perspective, there's not a lot to go on,'' he said.

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