PORT LUDLOW — An adult gray whale found dead near Port Ludlow last week was malnourished like many others that have washed up on West Coast beaches this year, a leading whale expert said.
John Calambokidis, founder of the Cascadia Research Collective, said the skinny, 40-foot-long whale also was found to have eelgrass and a “small amount of trash” in its stomach.
“The blubber layer did not look like it had a lot of fat in it, which is just like what a lot of the other [dead] animals had,” Calambokidis said Tuesday.
U.S. scientists said Friday they will investigate why an unusual number of gray whales are washing up dead on the West Coast.
NOAA Fisheries on Friday declared the die-off an “unusual mortality event,” providing additional resources to respond to the deaths and triggering the investigation, the Associated Press reported.
The Port Ludlow whale, a middle-aged adult male, was discovered floating offshore May 26, said Betsy Carlson, citizen science coordinator with the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.
It washed ashore near a row of houses in Port Ludlow and was moved Sunday to a private beach, Carlson said.
The carcass was examined Monday by scientists with the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective and Port Townsend Marine Science Center.
“Other than being thin and somewhat emaciated, it didn’t have any apparent sign of trauma,” said Carlson, a regional coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
The last gray whale found dead in East Jefferson County waters was discovered in a shipping lane and towed to Indian Island in 2016, Carlson said.
The skeleton of that whale will be displayed in the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s new museum.
Meanwhile, researchers said another gray whale washed ashore at Westport on Sunday.
Calambokidis said 28 gray whales have washed ashore so far this year on Washington’s inland waterways and outer coast.
“This is being seen up and down the coast,” Calambokidis said in a Tuesday interview.
Some 70 whales have been found dead so far this year on the coasts of Washington, California, Oregon and Alaska, the most since 2000, the Associated Press reported.
About five more have been discovered on British Columbia beaches.
That’s a small fraction of the total number of whales believed to have died, scientists say.
“At this point, the gray whale population has been doing extremely well,” Calambokidis said.
“It’s not endangered. It’s one of the success stories of a whale population that has come back strong.”
The eastern North Pacific gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994 after recovering from the whaling era.
The population has grown significantly in the last decade and is now estimated at 27,000 — the highest since surveys began in 1967, the Associated Press reported.
Calambokidis said whale’s high mortality this year could be the result of the species reaching its carrying capacity given the food supply.
Gray whales spend their summers feeding in the Arctic before migrating 10,000 miles to winter off Mexico. Though they eat all along their route, they are typically thinning by the time they return north along the West Coast each spring — passing by the North Olympic Peninsula as they swim to the Arctic.
They eat many things, but especially amphipods, tiny shrimp-like creatures that live in sediment on the ocean floor in the Arctic.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].