A beluga whale carcass found on North Kenai Beach lay stranded on the sand alongside the water's edge on Monday.
Photo by Patrice Kohl
National Marine Fisheries Service biologists unleashed the heavy scent of decay over North Kenai Beach on Monday as they carved into a 2-week-old beluga carcass found there by a man walking his dog on Saturday.
The whale’s underside was pocked where birds had dove down onto the carcass and it had likely been floating belly up in the ocean for sometime before it beached on shore, said Barbara Mahoney, National Marine Fisheries Service’s beluga whale program coordinator.
Mahoney, Erika Ammann, a fisheries biologist, and Dennis Thaute, an enforcement officer also with the National Marine Fisheries Service, arrived Monday afternoon to remove the whale’s lower jaw and stomach for inspection in the laboratory, and to look for anything that might indicate how the whale died, including bullets.
Thaute said a beluga could be shot by subsistence fishermen, escape and then die later.
National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement officer Dennis Thaute waves a metal detector over a beluga whale carcass on the north beach of the Kenai River on Monday. He was looking for bullets as a possible cause of death.
Photo by Patrice Kohl
Most dead and stranded belugas reported to the fisheries service are older, like the one found this weekend, and in an advanced stage of decay, making it difficult to determine the cause of death.
Thaute waved a metal detector over the whale and found no metal, or any obvious external injuries. Mahoney said the cause of the whale’s death will likely remain a mystery.
Before they searched for the whale’s stomach, Mahoney and Ammann removed the skin and blubber to reveal a soupy mix of soft organs, many of which appeared to have forgotten their former shapes.
Due to organ deterioration Mahoney could not determine the sex of the whale and said she hoped she had gotten the entire stomach, but wasn’t sure.
In the lab, biologists will extract the teeth from the lower jaw and use them to determine the whale’s age, and will look into the whale’s stomach to find out what it had been eating.
Mahoney said it’s particularly interesting to view the stomach contents of a beluga that has died in the early spring or late fall because the whale’s diet tends to vary more before and after the salmon runs.
Belugas will eat just about anything and their stomachs have been found containing just about everything from hooligan to octopus, she said.
Mahoney said this year approximately six belugas have been found dead in the Cook Inlet area, well below the average of 12 per year.
No one knows why so few dead belugas have been found in the area this year.
Mahoney said it could just be that a number of carcass have gone unreported, but also said people have been really good about reporting whale carcass to authorities in recent years.
Before they left, Mahoney and Ammann took several measurements of the whale, which measured nearly 11 feet long and was covered in a layer of blubber a little over seven inches thick.
Patrice Kohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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