Last summer, a mass die-off of at least 40 whales under unknown circumstances caused NOAA to declare an “unusual mortality event.” Many of those whales, the majority of which were fin or humpback whales, were spotted on or around the Kodiak Archipelago.
On Friday, KMXT’s Kayla Desroches boarded a float plane with two marine mammal specialists who were conducting a whale survey along Kodiak’s east side. Bree Witteveen with the University of Alaska Fairbanks said they were retracing a flight they did in June 2015 as a response to the die-offs.
We spot a gray whale not long after we leave the city of Kodiak.
“A lot of the bones were poking out already,” says Witteveen. “So he’s been there for a while.”
She says it’s unclear how the whale died, but she can gather that it may be a calf due to its small size.
The researchers snap pictures and mark the location of the carcasses on a map using a tablet. Less than ten minutes later, we spot a second grey whale.
“We’ve got a floater.”
It’s belly-up in the water.
“This floating whale will be a lot fresher than the one that we saw,” Witteveen says. “I mean, it’s possible that the first one we saw has been there for months even, but this one is within a few days.”
“How do we know that?” I say.
“Partially the fact that it’s still floating, but it looks relatively intact still. Also doesn’t show evidence of a killer whale attack.”
Unlike the third and final whale.
We spot it in Ugak Bay on the way back to the city. The researchers think it’s a humpback whale that may have had a run-in with a killer whale and become a snack.
When it comes to less cut and dry cases than predator and prey situations, cause of death can be hard to determine. Witteveen says they took samples from a carcass last summer and tested it for an indicator of radioactivity and a number of toxins that would be present in a harmful algal bloom.
“And all of those were negative. Unfortunately, because the carcass was as old as it was by the time we got to it, a lot of those toxins could have degraded out of the tissue already.”
Witteveen says the ideal time to take a sample is 48 to 72 hours from death. That would require a quick turnaround and plenty of tip-offs from pilots, fishermen, and anyone else who scans the coastline on a regular basis.
Witteveen says that’s how we found two out of the three whales we flew over today. Our pilot, Scooter Mainero with Andrew Airways, is up for the task.
“Next time I see a fresh dead whale, I’ll call you guys and I’ll fuel the plane and we’ll go.”
Witteveen says this year they’ll have more funds to respond to calls like that in time thanks to the “unusual mortality event” declaration in August and a response plan to address the die-offs. The financial help will allow specialists to fly out soon after a carcass’s discovery and secure a sample.
Kate Wynne, another marine mammal specialist on the trip, said that the number of die-offs seems normal for this time of year, and the survey will be useful as a baseline.