WALDPORT, Ore. (CN) – After a rare live stranding, officials euthanized a beached humpback whale Thursday after he was unable to ride three successive high tides back out to sea.
The young whale, likely between six and eight months old, struggled hard with each tide. Bystanders watching present at various times during the 30-hour ordeal described hearing the singular sound of his humpback calls and the exertion evident in his loud breaths.
But after the third high tide, he was exhausted. And by then, his heart and lungs were probably damaged from the novel and crushing weight of dry-land gravity.
Towing the whale into deep water was too likely to injure and stress him, according to Brittany Blades, curator of marine mammals at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. And at 21-feet long and an estimated three tons, there was no way to get close to him without the risk of getting clobbered by his thrashing tail.
The whale was born in Mexico last winter before he migrated north with his mother, headed for her usual summer feeding grounds. He was probably too young to have been weaned, according to wildlife biologists who worried that even if he had been able to make it past the battering waves that likely pushed him into shore in the first place, he may have starved in the Pacific without her.
“The ocean’s a big place,” said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Biologist Shawn Stephenson. “You never know where the mother is.”
So after working through the night to keep the whale wet, a team of scientists with members from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Oregon State University’s Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network decided Thursday that the most humane response was to euthanize him.
“It’s a really tough decision,” said Casey McLean, veterinary nurse and executive director of Sea Life Response, Rehab and Research. “It’s not something we take lightly at all. We had been monitoring, watching respirations, watching behavior, vital signs – there’s all kinds of parameters we’re looking for –body condition, blood samples, it’s really a cautious thing and it’s a team thing.”
It’s highly unusual for juvenile whales to come ashore alive in Oregon, according to Bruce Mate, director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center at Oregon State University.
Mate said the last such incident was in 1979, when a young sperm whale became stranded on a Lincoln City beach.
Mate said it’s possible that the young whale couldn’t keep up with his mother and got lost in forceful waves along the rocky Oregon coast. Or maybe there wasn’t enough of the krill, sardines and salmon that humpback whales eat for the mother to keep nursing her son.
But the reasons for stranding incidents involving young whales are unclear, according to McLean.
“Are they coming up because mom was hit by a boat?” McLean said. “Or did she die of some disease? We don’t know. There’s a lot of unknowns.”
The team will perform a necropsy, and measure the whale’s stomach contents, genetics, blood and toxins. Results will take several weeks. Then that information will be used in combination with data from other strandings to try to figure out why these events are happening. After taking samples, the team will bury the whale where it died.
A Seattle family vacationing on the southern Oregon coast described seeing the whale shortly after it became stranded Wednesday morning.
“It was out on the edge of the sandbar when we first saw it,” Debbie Connell, 42, said Thursday. “It had just washed ashore. And as the tide kept coming in, we thought it would be able to escape. But the tide kept rolling it along in towards the shore and it didn’t seem to have enough strength to swim out.”
Connell’s mother, 75-year-old Vicki Hultberg said the whale was speaking as it struggled in the waves.
“It was making calls,” Hultberg said. “These almost seal-like sounds. We kept looking out into the water to see if we could see its mom, but we couldn’t see it.”
“I bet it missed its mom so much it was about to cry,” added her grandson, 8-year-old Colton Connell.