Researchers are hoping the carcass of an entangled juvenile humpback whale that washed ashore will hold clues to its death and insight into preventing further entanglements.
The whale was found already deceased on a secluded beach north of Kyuquot, a remote First Nation community on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.
The first known pictures of the whale show a yellowing carcass with crab traps looped around its pectoral fin, through its mouth, and around its tail.
The whale didn’t have a kind death, says humpback whale researcher Jackie Hildering.
“I think it really speaks to people about how excruciating that death would’ve been,” she says.
Hildering, who conducts research with Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), says the whale’s situation is unique. Dead whales usually sink. It’s not often they wash up on shore, let alone tangled in fishing gear.
MERS’ research focuses primarily on humpback and minke whales. The society also promotes education and outreach around whales and other marine mammals. According to MERS, current threats to humpback whales include prey shortage, vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements.
“I don’t think people realize that. They think well, if entanglement was really such a problem – and collision for that matter – well, we’d have dead whale bodies all over the place,” she says. “But no, dead whales most often sink. So our research has been to look at the survivors and evidence of scarring.”
Preliminary research from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and MERS suggests that 50 per cent of the humpbacks living off B.C.’s coast have evidence of scarring from entanglements.
“This is a rarity that a whale actually washes up to tell the story of entanglement,” says Hildering. “Most often, dead whales sink.”
“The humpbacks have really changed things since they’ve come back in the numbers that they have and they can be oblivious of boats, let alone fishing gear.”
Hildering didn’t know the whale had washed onto the beach until she was alerted to a Facebook post with pictures from April 2 showing a badly decomposed whale.
The pictures belong to Tracey Gosselin, whose husband Leo Jack runs Voyageur Water Taxi in Kyuquot. Jack helps with sea kayak trip logistics and had picked up a pair of kayakers about a month ago who told him about the whale.
Jack and Gosselin decided to go check out the area, which was an about 40 km boat trip away.
She says the whale was “very swollen and decayed” when they spotted it. She saw about five traps entangled on the whale and a rope wrapped around its tail. Gosselin took pictures of the “devastating situation” and posted them on her Facebook page. In the pictures, the whale can be seen laying on its back, tail close to the water. A pile of traps sits next to one of its wing-like pectoral fins.
This gear could hold important clues as to not just where and when the whale became entangled, but could also help further humpback entanglement research.
“Every time you can get those clues with netting or traps, there’s a better understanding of how the entanglement took place,” says Hildering. “They offer clues where these poor victims can potentially reduce the risk for other whales.
“And of course, whoever’s gear this is, nobody wants to lose their fishing gear, nor do they want to kill a whale. It’s a reality that we need to share the oceans with whales.”
In an April 9 emailed statement, a spokesperson for DFO, which coordinates marine mammal rescues, said a Coast Guard vessel was on its way to check out the whale. A DFO team would take measurements and pictures of the animal and gear. Information on where and when the whale was entangled would be collected from a chip in the buoy.
If there were earlier images of the whale, researchers may have been able to identify the individual. However at the state it was photographed in, its identity is likely to remain a mystery. Hildering estimates that based off of Gosselin’s images, the whale had been dead for months.
DFO says it will work with any local First Nation communities interested in harvesting baleen or bones for social or ceremonial use.
Had the whale washed up on a beach in a more populated or more easily accessible area, its skeleton may have been used for educational purposes.
An entangled humpback that washed ashore on a White Rock beach in 2012 now hangs at the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove.
There’s many ways people can help whales and that includes knowing what to do if you find one dead or in distress.
Hildering says there’s a “romanticized notion” of someone thinking they can save a whale on their own. In reality, you’re not only putting yourself at risk, but also the whale.
“So often what you’re doing is removing the evidence at the surface that the whale is entangled and the ability to go in and disentangle it,” says Hildering.
Instead of trying to tackle disentangling a whale yourself, report it. If you can, stay with it, but at a safe distance. At a minimum, if you can, take pictures and note the location. The hotline is 1-800-465-4336.