Gray whales have been dying more this year than is normal in Washington. Nine gray whale carcasses have washed up on local beaches or found floating in local waters. These are called strandings. There have been 30 along the West Coast this year—more than five times the number as last year.
The science powers that be (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Cascadia Research Collective) have been scooping up the carcasses and examining them (called a necropsy) to answer the age old question—what gives?
The answer so far is the same sad story we've been hearing with whale populations: nutritional stress.
"Many of the whales that have been necropsied have been unusually thin," Michael Milstein, Public Affairs Officer with NOAA Fisheries wrote in an email to The Stranger. "Surveys in the lagoons in Mexico where gray whales winter found that up to half of the individual whales were skinny and malnourished."
According to Milstein, gray whales feed in the Arctic in the summer, and that food mainly lasts them all year.
"It appears that for some reason some of these whales did not put on as much weight last summer and are now giving out on their way back north," Milstein said. NOAA Fisheries scientists are continuing to study this.
But what of all those whale carcasses? Full-grown healthy whales can weigh anywhere from 30-40 tons. Post-necropsy, what happens to all those tons and tons of whale?
Milstein said that after a necropsy the carcass is either towed out into deeper waters and released to sink or is left on the beach to decompose, depending on the location.
That makes sense, we've all seen that Blue Planet II episode, anyway, right? We're basically scientists. (Thank you, Sir David Attenborough.)
I asked Jessie Huggins, the stranding coordinator at Cascadia Research Collective.
"Necropsies are conducted whenever the condition of the animal and the accessibility of the location allow," Huggins wrote in an email. "What happens with the remains is dependent on several factors, including the location of the animal and the resources available. It is ideal for us to be able to leave them on the beach to decompose and feed the environment (as nature intended), but that is not always feasible."
So, what happens when it's not always feasible??? I didn't get a response. Obviously, my mind jumped to this Oregon Department of Transportation whale carcass removal method. Milstein said this somehow comes up every time anyone mentions whale strandings.
"Since then we have learned a lot more about the decomposition of carcasses, in that they can be an important source of nutrients to the marine ecosystem," Milstein said. "When a gray whale sinks to the bottom in (called a "whale fall") they turn out to feed a whole community of microbes and other marine life that recycle the carcass by making use of it. So that's the preferred option if practical, though perhaps not nearly as exciting as an explosion."
However, despite all these wonky whale deaths, gray whale populations are mostly fine. In fact, the population is healthy overall, according to Milstein.