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Whale that washed ashore in Ventura County towed out to sea

Ashley Bautista, Ventura County's spokeswoman, was on a walk with her sons May 3, 2020, when she spotted a gray whale carcass at Emma Wood State Beach. It was towed out to sea May 5, 2020, after researchers conducted a brief investigation into its cause of death.
Ashley Bautista, Ventura County’s spokeswoman, was on a walk with her sons May 3, 2020, when she spotted a gray whale carcass at Emma Wood State Beach. It was towed out to sea May 5, 2020, after researchers conducted a brief investigation into its cause of death.
(Ashley Bautista)

A gray whale that washed up along the Ventura County coast late last week was probably dead for a few days before it reached the shore, researchers said Wednesday.

Reports of the marine mammal lying along a stretch of sand at Emma Wood State Beach came in Friday. The California state park is currently closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but locals are permitted to walk along the waterfront.

Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were called to investigate but were limited in their ability to perform a full necropsy on the massive animal, said Justin Viezbicke, California’s stranding and response coordinator. Because of this, the cause of death of the young adult male will probably be inconclusive.

“When you have a 35-foot whale that’s dead on the beach and you’ve only got two people down there ... it’s really difficult” to document the whale in its entirety, Viezbicke said, referring to the social distancing that is required under the state’s stay-at-home order.

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Such an examination typically takes six to 12 people, but a small number of staff were able to collect information that should prove useful in identifying other factors affecting the gray whale population, Viezbicke said.

Ashley Baustisa, Ventura County’s spokeswoman, was walking along the beach Sunday with her sons when they encountered the dead whale and took photographs.

“Sad for the whale but my boys thought it was pretty interesting to get so close to such a large animal today,” she posted on Facebook.

Sometimes, the carcasses are given sand burials, but this animal was towed out to sea Tuesday, officials said.

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Gray whales showing up along the California coast are not uncommon as the route follows the animals’ migratory path. Last May, NOAA declared an “unusual mortality event” and launched an investigation after 70 gray whale carcasses were spotted along the West Coast from Alaska to California, the highest number of documented deaths since 2000.

This time last year, there had been 27 reported dead whales, Viezbicke said. Dozens were found emaciated and showing signs of starvation.

The animal found in Ventura County was the 14th gray whale casualty this year in California. Research indicates that 2020’s lower numbers could be a sign the mortality event is leveling out. Some of the dead whales from this year were considered emaciated, while other carcasses were too far gone to determine whether the animals were underweight.

“This is nature’s way of keeping balance,” Viezbicke said.

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Sometimes, a cause of death for beached mammals is impossible to determine, depending on the condition of the carcass and other factors. In this case, the gray whale showed no obvious signs of fatal injuries, said Dena Bellman, spokeswoman for the Channel Coast District of the state parks department. The whale was the first wash ashore in the area this year, she said.

A team of researchers from the Channel Islands Cetacean Research Unit examined the whale over the weekend before it was towed out to sea, past onshore currents and away from shipping lanes, Bellman said.


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