Photo Essay: A whale of a day

First posted in June, 2003

[ WARNING: Some photographs in this post are potentially not for the squeamish. ]

So, after spending most of my morning on the phone with various whale biologists, taking requests for what I thought would amount to necropsying a rather small belukha whale, I ran home from work to change clothes. I changed from a uniform I hope to wear again to clothes I was willing to burn, just in case I got all mucky... which turned out not to be the case.

I picked up my intern Erin, who was a huge help today. She spent her afternoon gathering up sleeping bags, tents, etc... just in case the weather shut in on us and we had to spend the night out. As it turned out, it was just about the most perfect evening anyone could ask for, but it's always best to be prepared.

Once I had Erin, we drove to Alsek Air Taxi, where we met with Bill, a wildlife biologist who used to work for the Forest Service here but now works for the Salmon Board (a local entity that tries to ensure that salmon streams are treated properly). We had gathered gear for Bill, and only asked that he bring two things - vials for taking tissue samples and a shotgun. He'd been so focused on the vials that he'd completely forgotten the gun. Given the fact that we would be working with a major bear attractant (we spotted this whale the middle of last week, but couldn't land because a grizzly was feeding on it), I asked that he go get a gun. So he did, and we loaded the plane, and as we were finishing loading the gear, he returned. We were ready to go.

It was a lovely flight over to the park, and we had no trouble spotting the whale from the beach. However, that was sort of a surprise. We were looking for a little white whale, a belukha, but instead we found something darker, something not quite whole, but something that despite not being all there seemed much larger than what we were looking for, with no identifiable head, flippers, flukes, nada.

This is the type of whale we were looking for:

(I took this photo at the Vancouver Aquarium)

This is what we found:

Erin with her not so fragrant mass of whale flesh

So, I walked around it and took some photographs. I looked very closely for signs of perimortem wounds, but initially didn't see anything. Then again, I didn't see any identifiable body parts, either. Now, I'm no marine biologist, but if this thing turns out to be a belukha, I will be a bit surprised. It just seemed too big, and yet it wasn't all there. Parts were buried that we couldn't get to, and other parts were obviously gone.

The biologist who asked for the stomach, kidneys, and reproductive organs was the same person who told me I'd be fine with a ten to twelve inch knife. Heh. I needed more like, um, a chainsaw. And I hadn't brought a chainsaw, so she didn't get any of her organs.

We hacked on the whale with what knives we had:

Note the wonderful expression on Erin's face...
you can really tell she's enjoying that smell!

I was able to get a couple of DNA samples, which will be mailed to a lab tomorrow. That should be enough to help us identify the species. I really tried to get inside the thing. Honestly I did. Bill gave up long before I did, and lounged on the beach watching me work, and even made a crack that I seemed to be enjoying myself, but I really wanted to see something... at least find a bone perhaps. I managed to cut through some very leathery, desiccated skin and through a layer of blubber several inches thick. The blubber wasn't at all what I expected; I expected it to be like cutting through fat, but instead it was very dense and fibrous, a solid piece of material. The tissue I got into below that went on forever. I cut about a foot into that tissue and decided there was no way I would get to anything significant by the time the tide came back in, and it was going to be a very high tide (I'd say this whale is under water as we speak).

However, it was also at that time that I noticed an opening in the whales flesh, several days old, that when you pulled it apart looked much like the cuts I'd just made with a knife. In other words, a clean cut, unlike anything that an orca, bear, or wolf might be able to inflict. It's probably nothing, but if I'm right, it might mean a prop strike from a boat. Bill and I took a large chunk from the wound, which will be sent to a forensic specialist, who will look at it underneath a microscope to see what caused the cut. Perhaps that will help, too. Right now, that semi-rotten whale flesh is in a ziplock in a cooler in my fridge... let's pray I don't have to bleach the entire fridge due to the smell tomorrow.

Anyway, the trip was not a waste. We got some DNA samples, and maybe we found something else important. After we gave up, we walked a quarter mile down the beach to where our pilot picked us up. We had to wait until a little after 8:00 pm, but that was no problem at all. The weather was fine, the temperature perfect, and this is a sample of the view where we were waiting for the flight:

Mt. Cook with a (probably unnamed) lake in the foreground

While Erin and I sat eating supper (boiled eggs, havarti cheese, carrots, and a piece of (low-carb) dark chocolate), the occasional harbor seal popped its head out of the surf to look at us. The lake in the above picture was to our north, but the ocean was an equal distance to the south. Beauty in every direction. And to my complete amazement, a sea otter casually floated right past us on his back, within 20 feet or so of the beach. He must have been well over five feet long, quite large, and he kept diving, probably looking for crabs to eat.

If you're interested and have the bandwidth, I took some footage of our pilot coming in to pick us up, just in case you want to see what it's like to stand on an ocean beach and have a plane come pick you up (I'm beginning to realize that very few ever experience this sort of thing), you can download it. It's 3.56 MB and requires QuickTime, and for some reason it seems to work better if you right-click on the link and choose 'Save Target As' (on PC's). [ Here's the movie. ]

It was a nice flight home, too...

All in all, a good day. An interesting day. I didn't accomplish what I'd hoped, but that's okay, I guess.

[ If you enjoyed this essay, you might also be interested in a necropsy I performed on an elephant seal, also on the remote southeast Alaskan coast. ]