• Semester by the Bay students help in necropsy
By Naomi Klouda
Photos by Melisse Reichman
An adult male beluga whale found floating in Cook Inlet on Oct. 4 by the crew aboard the M/V Perseverance is the third dead whale found this summer.
The Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Response tug was underway in Nikiski Bay when Charlie Parish and his crew sighted it.
“They were in between rig runs, in the course of a day’s work they travel to the platforms to drop off supplies,” said Mike Watson, CISPRI operations manager. “It was simply floating, they saw it and looked it over. It didn’t appear to be dead very long.”
Parish reported the beluga death to the National Marine Fisheries Service stranding network. “They asked us if we would be willing to recover the whale. The boat has a crane and a large work deck on back, so they were able to load it aboard and brought it to the OSK dock in Nikiski,” Watson said.
Barbara Mahoney, the assistant stranding coordinator for NMFS, called for a necropsy. Kenai Peninsula College Kachemak Bay Campus Assistant Professor of biology Debbie Boegi-Tobin and her class were able to drive to Nikiski beach to assist the veterinarian pathologist Kathy Burek Huntington in the necropsy.
“We were lucky enough that CISPRI reported the whale, and lucky still again that they had the equipment and skills to put it on their deck,” Mahoney said.
If the crew hadn’t brought the beluga to shore, it would have floated the rough Cook Inlet currents until perhaps eventually getting beached. By then, it would be too far decomposed to be useful to the studies looking into what is stressing the endangered Cook Inlet beluga pod.
The Cook Inlet whales, identified as a genetically isolated stock, were listed as endangered in 2008. Their population was estimated to be as many as 1,300 in the late 1970s. Harvest of the whales was stopped in 1995, but their population has continued to decline. The NMFS’s population estimate in June 2011 was 284, down from the June 2010 estimate of 340. The decline has slowed, but the population still has not begun to grow, despite having the added protections — in designation of critical habitat area, for example — that an endangered listing entails.
“We’re looking for causes of death, and overall health of the whales,” Mahoney said.
The Kachemak Bay Campus plays an active roll in marine studies beyond even the bay. Boege-Tobin, who leads students enrolled in the Semester By the Bay program, said her students are being given rare first-hand experiences in learning about the marine environment. In fact, KBC is the recipient of whale skeletons. Students have taken part in several necropsies and whale bone articulations, including a beaked whale skull now on exhibit in front of the campus that students helped Lee Post put together. They also took part in a gray whale articulation project this summer, with Post and volunteers, at the Pratt Museum.
Boege-Tobin’s biology students and Melisse Reichman (Nature Tales Studio) assisted Dr. Kathy Burek-Huntington of Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services with the beluga whale necropsy in Nikiski.
“It was a rare and exceptional hands-on learning opportunity for all,” Boege-Tobin said.
Following the necropsy and proper NOAA permit notification for educational and display purposes, Boege-Tobin took the beluga skeleton back to Homer where it will be buried for one year, followed by a full skeletal articulation with next year’s students. “That is, after we first excavate and articulate the buried Stejneger’s beaked whale that was necropsied in Little Tutka Bay last year,” she said.
They found the beluga to be a full adult male, 13.9 feet long. Its blubber thickness indicated a level of health, but his teeth were oddly worn down. This whale also may have suffered some kind of blunt force trauma, indicated by bruising in the head area.
Mahoney said the object of the necropsy was to remove tissues to determine cause of death. Tests on skin, for example, can confirm gender. Tissue tests can also check for diseases, viruses and pneumonia. If the whale isn’t too decomposed, they also check for broken bones or signs of trauma that would indicate blunt force, such as a run in with an Orca or a boat.
This was the third Cook Inlet beluga mortality this summer. One was caught in a Kenaitze Indian Tribe set-net on May 7. It was a relatively young beluga, a few years old and about 8-9 feet. Another was a five-foot calf found dead off Point Possession in August. That one was so decomposed they could take only the teeth, heart and skin samples to help figure out what caused its death, Mahoney said.
Three stranded belugas died in 2011. In 2010, there were five beluga deaths, Mahoney said. “In past years, we’ve averaged a dozen dead in a year.”
A research paper should be out around the end of the year compiling the necropsy data, Mahoney said.
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