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Wildlife

Body of dead Unalaska humpback whale to be used for science, art

  • Author: Jim Paulin
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 8, 2015

A humpback whale tangled in fishing gear in Unalaska Bay ended up giving its body to art and science last week.

The whale was last seen barely alive, trailing lines from a big fishing pot, perhaps a crab pot, but probably used for catching Pacific cod, according to Melissa Good of the Marine Advisory Program.

It was towed toward town with a skiff by Qawalangin Tribe members Tom Robinson and Russell Shaishnikoff and finally pulled ashore by Robinson's truck. Robinson said he "planted the Qawalangin Tribe's flag" on the creature's huge remains.

Robinson planned to salvage the baleen for art projects. Baleen, boney black plates used by the whales when eating, is a common art medium for carving in Arctic villages. But the whales don't usually die in the Aleutians.

Robinson said the last dead whale he recalled in Unalaska was back in the 1990s. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act allows the harvest of the endangered humpback for subsistence food and arts purposes by Alaska Natives. But Robinson said this whale was too far gone to eat safely, and the putrid odor from the corpse extended for hundreds of feet. Large chunks of white blubber covered with black skin were removed to gain access to internal organs.

Good figured the whale died about five days before the necropsy last Friday, when it was cut apart on the beach with long-bladed knives by citizen scientists standing knee-deep in stinky, soft wet tissue in the belly of the beast.

"My guess would be it's a cod pot because it's nearby, but it's possible it could be a crab pot," Good said. She said she'll know more when divers take a close look at the big pot's configuration. The pot was underwater and marked with a buoy near the scene of the necropsy conducted by scientists, volunteers, teachers and high school students at Little South America.

The whale was dragging around two pots: the big pot and a smaller subsistence Dungeness crab pot, she said.

Good said the whale probably drowned, due to the heavy fishing line in its mouth. The big pot's line was one inch thick and wrapped around it was the narrower line from the small crab pot, she said.

But something besides drowning could have killed it, Good said, possibly infections from the buoy line cutting into its skin. More will be known when biological samples are analyzed by veterinarian Kathy Huntington of Eagle River, who directed the operation involving cutting the whale into small pieces and placing blood and liver and other bodily fluid samples into vials for laboratory study.

Students competing in the statewide Tsunami Bowl from Unalaska High School helped measure and cut up the whale. Good said she coaches the team of five students along with science teacher David Gibson. The students are required to write a research paper on coastal resilience and take part in a quiz contest in Seward.

The whales are now making their southbound migration from northern feeding grounds to the southern mating waters around Hawaii and Baja California.

This summer, the hungry humpbacks briefly delayed the Dutch Harbor food and bait herring fishery, with hundreds seen on the herring grounds, while the three fishing boats stayed off to the side waiting for their chance to catch herring with seine nets.

The dead whale was measured at about 30 feet -- the size of a juvenile, since adult males reach an average length of 46 feet and females grow to 49 feet, according to researcher Kate Wynne.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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