Tow boat crews wrapped a huge nylon sling around the tail of a dead blue whale drifting in the Santa Barbara Channel on Friday and started hauling their grim cargo toward a beach at Point Mugu.
In a deepening scientific mystery, the blue whale is the third in two weeks found dead off the Southern California coast.
An endangered species, blue whales are the largest animals on Earth. Until last week, they were found stranded on California beaches or mangled on the bows of ships in the state’s ports perhaps once a year, according to scientists charged with retrieving and studying them.
Instead of waiting for the latest whale to drift ashore, scientists sped up the process with a tow, enabling them to scrutinize the whale’s tissues before they further decompose. The whale’s destination -- a beach at Naval Base Ventura County -- was chosen so the public would not be exposed to the odor or the expense of getting rid of it.
“Nobody was jumping up and down saying, ‘Pick my beach!’ “said Easter Moorman, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which is coordinating the effort.
Under pelting rain and gusty winds, the Maverick and the Retriever, two boats owned by the firm Vessel Assist, left Ventura Harbor about 3 p.m., heading for the whale eight miles from shore. Hauling the carcass through the choppy channel was expected to take up to 10 hours. From the air, the vessels -- perhaps 30 feet long -- looked like dinghies next to the carcass, which was scraped up and bleeding. The boats took up positions on both sides, and crew members played out a looped sling and pulled it tight around the tail. One of the vessels would haul the load, weighing 50 tons or more, while the other accompanied it.
Sharks were gnawing at the carcass, but the looping technique kept crews from having to enter the water. “You can’t put a man in that water,” said Lynn Menick, the general contractor on the job and owner of a company that has been doing deep-sea towing since 1975. “It would be sheer suicide.”
Scientists today plan to start a detailed necropsy. The process could last through the weekend and is crucial if biologists are to determine what is killing the whales.
“It’s definitely got my attention and a lot of other folks’ too,” said Bruce Mate, a scientist who tracks whales off California. “This is a much higher number of animals dying in a much shorter period of time than usual.”
A blue whale that washed ashore in Ventura County last week and one found dead in Long Beach Harbor two weeks ago both are believed to have been hit by ships, but it isn’t known if the whales were slowed or disoriented by illness.
“If they’re all being hit by ships, you have to wonder whether they’re compromised in the first place,” said Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.
Scientists want to know whether domoic acid played a part. The highly toxic substance, created by bacteria found in algae blooms, can virtually paralyze marine mammals and has killed dolphins and sea lions in the channel.
On Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service urged vessels plying the channel to report dead whales they have seen or inadvertently hit. Even with blue whales weighing 60 tons or more, massive freighters and tankers can run into them without realizing it.
“On a vessel doing 40 knots, no one notices if they’ve dropped half a knot,” Mate said. “Sometimes it’s only when they get into port that a huge, rotten mass floats off.”
A necropsy on the Ventura whale revealed a number of crushed vertebrae, but its tissues were too far gone to yield clues on illnesses. Before scientists got a chance to thoroughly examine the Long Beach whale, the Coast Guard had towed it out to sea, away from its temporary resting place beside a wharf.
The body of the Ventura whale showed no sign of sonar damage, such as blood in the ear canal. But certain sonar frequencies used by the Navy for decades have been linked to whale deaths elsewhere and were briefly banned this summer off California. The prohibition was lifted by a federal judge Aug. 31, and since Sept. 11 the Navy has conducted sonar training off San Clemente Island, 150 miles south of the Santa Barbara Channel.
Some scientists doubt that sonar plays a part in the recent deaths. Mate pointed out that the Navy’s sonar training resumed the day the Ventura whale was spotted but probably several days after it died.
Michelle Berman, a biologist with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, said the whale at Point Mugu will be examined for sonar damage, but added: “There’s no indication that these whales’ deaths have any relation to the Navy activity off San Clemente. It’s not even an inclination for us, but we’ll examine every animal to the fullest.”