KODIAK — While the rest of Kodiak was in the midst of a heatwave, Surfer’s Beach was shrouded in fog Saturday. The weather felt apt, given that the carcass of a gray whale had washed up on the shore of the popular recreation spot two days prior.
If a hapless vacationer had taken a westward stroll down the beach that afternoon, they would have stumbled, quite abruptly, across a small crowd of people using gaff hooks and machetes as they performed a necropsy on the animal.
Since January 1 there has been an elevated level of gray whale strandings along the west coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare an “unusual mortality event on June 1. As of Monday, a total of 174 gray whales have washed up on the shores of the US, Mexico and Canada this year, according to NOAA. Between 2001-2018, the average number of annual gray whale strandings in the US was roughly 29. The whale that beached on Surfer’s on July 4 was the sixteenth dead whale to wash up on Alaskan shores in 2019.
The declaration of a UME triggered an investigation into the cause of the mass die-off. As such, whenever a gray whale carcass is reported, a necropsy is the first priority when it is safe to do so. This is why Emily Iacobucci, one of Kodiak Veterinary Clinic’s two veterinarians, was on Surfer’s Beach handing out gloves and knives to volunteers Saturday.
“We’re just getting started because they do start to compose real quick,” Iacobucci said. “The samples are more valuable the fresher they are.”
Iacobucci was leading the necropsy on behalf of Dr. Kathy Burek, who runs Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services, the only organization of its kind in the state. Burek was contracted through NMFS to conduct necropsies for the ongoing UME investigation — Iacobucci said that she’s worked with Burek in the past and helped to conduct a whale necropsy in 2018. With the fog keeping Burek from arriving imminently, the mantle had been passed to Iacobucci.
“What’s important to note is: we are here under a permit. Not anyone can just come out and cut up whales,” Iacobucci said. “Our goal is to try to observe as much as we can about this particular animal.”
Iacobucci began by walking all the way around the animal, taking a range of photographs, including close-ups of certain features. She and her team took measurements and then they began to cut into the animal’s blubber.
“It’s pretty stinky, gross work — but it’s important,” Iacobucci said. “We have a volunteer network. It’s a holiday weekend, so a lot of people are away, but these are the people who showed up.”
The first cut unleashed a torrent of built up gas that attested to Iacobucci’s comments regarding how quickly the decomposition would take. Once the gaseous flow subsided, the team began to remove large chunks of blubber. While some small samples were taken and its thickness was noted, the ultimate aim was to remove all of it, so that the next step of the necropsy could take place.
“The biggest step is actually to remove the blubber. That’s pretty taxing and can take a while, so that may be as far as we get today,” Iacobucci said, adding that the necropsy would end up being a two-day operation. “How extensively we sample organs depends on how fresh it is. If it’s fresh enough, we’ll be doing a lot of sampling of just about everything.”
While Iacobucci emphasized that she was only there to collect samples for analysis and not solve the mystery of the dead whale, she did note that the whale’s tongue appeared to be missing. This can be an indicator of Orca predation.
“But there can always be comorbidities,” Iacobucci said. “Maybe that (Orcas) was the thing that finished him off — but there’s no reason that he may not already have been ill for some other reason.”
Elaborating further, Iacobucci explained that the samples they were taking to send off to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service were not necessarily going to be analyzed to determine the death of this specific whale, but rather to find indicators of a possible broader issue affecting hundreds of whales.
Kate Savage, a NMFS veterinarian and biologist who is the Alaska representative for the UME, said that people shouldn’t expect a conclusion to the investigation any time soon.
“This UME investigation is going to be a marathon and not necessarily a sprint,” she said. “It’s still happening, and we’re collecting all this information. It’s probably going to take years, because the mortalities may keep on happening over that period of time.”
Savage said there are some things that are certain: among them is that a large number of whales are malnourished.
“I think it was 50% of the carcusses show the animals being really thin, if not emaciated. That’s not even in question,” Savage said. “The question is: Why is that happening? And, why aren’t they all thin?”
According to Savage, the samples from the whale dissected on Surfer’s Beach on Saturday will go to Burek, who will disperse them to a number of labs and researchers. She explained that there are numerous teams with various fields of expertise who are working in tandem to “try to complete the puzzle.” Savage said that this is because the answer won’t simply lie in samples from one whale –– the question has to be looked at holistically.
“This really is an ecosystem thing, because none of these animals are isolated,” Savage said.
While the investigation continues, Savage added that the public can play a role by reporting any whale carcass sightings as soon as possible.
“We rely on other people’s eyes on the water. It’s just so helpful when other people call us and tell us about marine mammal strandings,” she said.
The Marine Mammal Stranding hotline is 877 925 7773.