Alaska News

What do you do when a 50-foot-long whale carcass shows up in a small harbor town?

When a dead fin whale showed up slung over the bow of a cruise ship arriving in Seward yesterday, wildlife officials faced a time-sensitive problem.

What to do with a quickly decomposing, 50-foot-long whale carcass in the middle of a busy harbor?

The answer: Move it to a quiet beach and let nature take its course.

The whale discovered dead and draped over the bulbous bow of the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam Sunday morning has been moved to a beach away from town, said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman Julie Speegle Monday. The whale — determined to be a juvenile male — is undergoing an extensive necropsy aimed at determining the cause of its death.

[Cruise ship arrives in Seward with dead, endangered whale draped over its bow]

Speegle didn't say exactly where the whale was taken, describing the site only as "a suitable beach location" that met "accessibility needs for the necropsy" and is "acceptable for a permanent location" for the fin whale, the second largest animal in the world after the blue whale.

The scientists involved hope to test samples to determine whether the ship struck and killed the whale or whether it was already dead when hit. They also hope to understand whether the fin whale was exposed to harmful algal blooms believed to be related to a sudden die-off of whales documented last summer.

The whale's resting place at a less accessible beach means it won't be near the swarm of cruise ship passengers, campers and tourists that crowd Seward's harbor in the summertime.

Anchorage resident Andrew Sorensen was camping on a beach in what he described as a semi-industrial zone directly across the bay from the town of Seward. He stuck around to document the necropsy.

Sorensen watched as the whale was transported to the secluded beach on the opposite side of Resurrection Bay from Seward and then pulled above tideline with the aid of a forklift and bulldozer.

"It was pretty impressive seeing it kinda get dragged out of the water, how massive it was. Even though it was a juvenile it had to be 45 feet long," he said.

It was clear to Sorensen that the whale was freshly killed.

"It hadn't been rotting or decomposing yet," he said.

The necropsy team included a veterinary pathologist, five volunteers from Seward's Alaska SeaLife Center and a NOAA law enforcement officer, according to Speegle.

Sorensen shot video and took pictures. He had braced himself for a memorable stench. But things actually didn't smell too bad until the team got to the intestines.

"And then it started smelling pretty ripe."

The team worked until 11 p.m. Sunday collecting samples, Speegle said. The necropsy is expected to be finished Monday, but results may take weeks or longer. 

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