A 40-foot sperm whale that washed ashore on the northwest Oregon coast was killed after being struck by a ship, federal biologists who performed a postmortem on the animal determined Monday.
Biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries agency, NOAA Fisheries, came to this conclusion after examining a large wound in the whale’s side.
“There was bleeding, so that indicates the animal was alive when it was hit,” said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the West Coast Region of NOAA Fisheries.
The whale washed ashore dead Saturday at Fort Stevens State Park in northwest Oregon.
Biologists performed an autopsy, similar to an animal autopsy, at the spot where the whale washed ashore. They cut open the whale, examined its entrails and took samples to find out about the whale’s health and condition. They identified him as a 20-year-old man, Milstein said.
Members of NOAA’s West Coast Marine Mammal Network removed the whale’s lower jaw and teeth to study them and to protect the remains from looters.
“The sperm whale’s teeth and jaws are highly visible and quite profitable on the black market. We removed the jaws so that he could not be freed in another way,” Milstein said.
Sperm whales, the largest toothed whales, were nearly wiped out by the whaling industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. The precious waxy substance contained in their heads, spermaceti, was used in oil lamps, lubricants and candles. They are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
According to NOAA’s nationwide network of scientific researchers and institutions, wildlife and fisheries agencies, law enforcement agencies and volunteers, there are hundreds of reports of marine mammal strandings on the West Coast each year.
Samples and information collected from stranded animals are often used for scientific purposes to learn more about their populations and health.
The cause of strandings is unknown in most cases, but can include disease, parasites, harmful algal blooms, injury from ships or fishing gear, environmental pollution, and starvation. Most stranded animals are found dead. In a limited number of cases, live animals may be taken to rehabilitation centers. According to the network, those that are successfully rehabilitated can be returned to the wild on rare occasions.
While not unusual, it is unusual for a whale to wash up in northern Oregon during a time of year when most have migrated south for the winter.
According to Milstein, sperm whales are the third most common species on the Oregon coast after gray and humpback whales.
The next task will be to figure out how to dispose of the carcass. Beached whales are often buried where they lie on the beach, Milstein said, adding that he wasn’t sure what the plan was to dispose of the dead sperm whale in this case.
Meanwhile, officials urged the curious to stay away from the carcass.