• A Stejneger’s beaked whale is a true rarity for these waters
By Naomi Klouda
A rare whale found floating dead in Tutka Bay last week may be from the group of poorly understood Stejneger’s beaked whales.
If so, Prof. Debbie Boege-Tobin and her students enrolled in the Semester By the Bay program at the University of Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Campus are bestowed with an unusual opportunity.
Boege-Tobin, and three students, were able to observe the necropsy of the whale on Saturday. They gained an up close and personal look at the 13-foot adult female whose cause of death is unknown.
Dave Seaman, a local boat wright, was in Tutka Bay on Friday when he spotted the whale near the shore.
“It was leaning against the rocks. I grabbed a hold of the tail and wrapped a rope around it, then towed it to a dock where I tied it up,” Seaman said. “It didn’t smell too bad, and it was all in one piece. It had a few skin abrasions from rolling on the rocks, and a strange look, like a porpoises’ face pinched into a beak.”
Seaman alerted Angela Doroff of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, who in turn contacted Boege-Tobin.
“Not much is known about the Stejneger’s beaked whale. It is a deep diving species that they believe feeds almost exclusively on squid. We aren’t out of their range, but it’s unusual to see one here,” Boege-Tobin said. “We had the Homer Veterinary Clinic donate services to x-ray the jaw. The way to distinguish it from other whales is to study their tooth and jaw morphology.”
Now, the Semester By the Bay program has X-rays to study, which are being used to identify it. They are 98 percent certain of the specie, but won’t know for sure until they receive results from the pathology lab at the Alaska Sealife Center.
Josh Tobin, a stranded mammal volunteer and Debbie’s husband, took the whale’s skull to the vet for it to be x-rayed.
The students helped bury the whale carcass on the beach in horse manure at the end of the six-hour necropsy. “We were given permission to keep the skeleton, so next year we can dig it up and can study its skeleton and articulate it,” said Boege-Tobin.
Once assembled, the campus will be in possession of the skeleton and can exhibit it. Students enrolled in the program now are at work on a gray whale that washed ashore and was buried after necropsy at the beach near Starisky last year. They used the same method for decomposing the flesh. Lee Post, a bone articulation expert, recommended horse manure because it keeps the flesh warm and facilitates decomposition. KBC isn’t sure if they get to keep the gray whale, but are hoping to receive a permit from NOAA that would allow the college’s ownership.
“This really furthers our knowledge and will be valuable,” Boege-Tobin said. In fact, the eight students enrolled in the program have gained a lot of whale experiences lately. They have a Facebook page loaded with whale photos from sojourns in the bay, including the dead whales.
UAA’s KBC branch launched the Semester by the Bay program this year, a way to offer marine biology majors hands-on experiences observing the abundant ecosystem of Kachemak Bay. Students are enrolled in other colleges, but come to Homer to spend a semester in bayside studies.
Stejneger’s beaked whale ranges in Arctic waters and the Bering Sea. Sometimes the whale is called the Bering Sea beaked whale or the Saber-toothed whale. Leonhard Hess Stejneger initially described the species in 1885 from a skull, and nothing more of the species was known for nearly a century. The late 1970s saw several strandings. But it wasn’t until 1994 that the external appearance was described from fresh specimens. The most noteworthy characteristic of the male is the very large, saber-like teeth, hence the name.
In the spring, a class is offered to the general public by Melisse Reichman, “Recording Scientific Specimens in 2d and 3d,” that will make further use of whale specimens. It is a one-credit art and science class that will look at the whale for drawing, modeling and making sea-mounts
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