Newport Beach lifeguards had their eyes trained on the horizon Friday trying to make sure a 55-foot dead humpback whale — nicknamed Scarlet by local boaters — that was seen Thursday afternoon didn't make its way to the beach.
A dead whale onshore can create a very smelly problem, lifeguards said.
"If it hits the beach, it's going to stay here until it can be chopped up and towed off," said Marine Safety Capt. Skeeter Leeper. "It's a mess and it stinks."
Lifeguards saw the massive figure heading toward shore near the Newport Pier at about 3 p.m. Thursday. At first it looked like a large boat, but on closer inspection, they realized it was a humpback whale, Leeper said.
They tied a rope around the whale's tail and used a lifeguard boat to tow the carcass about 6½ miles out to sea. The whale's massive size — about twice the size of the lifeguard boat — meant the journey took about an hour.
"We're not sure where it ended up overnight because of the winds," Leeper said. "But we're watching for it."
Scarlet, a female humpback, was well-known among local boaters.
"Every humpback whale has their own characteristics and personality," said wildlife photographer Mark Girardeau. "Scarlet was very people-friendly."
She was first documented by the Cascadia Research Collective in 1997 in Santa Barbara. She had been seen as far north as Oregon but most frequently in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to the website happywhale.com, which identifies and documents whale sightings.
In August, she was photographed off the coast of Newport Beach with a rope through the left side of her mouth and around her pectoral fin. Rescue crews tried to free her, but she wouldn't stay above water long enough.
She appeared to be in poor health when she was seen again off Newport in September. She was free of the rope entanglement but was infested with lice, which gave her skin a red hue.
Local boaters dubbed her Scarlet, a name that originated in part because of the scars on her body from the ropes that had entangled her, Girardeau said.
In December, she appeared to be fully recovered.
She was seen last week swimming in Long Beach Harbor. Scarlet's presence in the harbor, an unusual location for a whale, indicates to some that something was off.
"Maybe she was still struggling," Girardeau said.
Trying to prevent whale carcasses from washing ashore isn't new to local lifeguards.
Over the course of two weeks in 2016, a dead humpback whale named Wally kept threatening to wash ashore. It was first seen at Dockweiler State Beach in Los Angeles County and eventually made its way south, ending its journey in San Diego County.
Wally was twice towed after floating close to Newport and then again in Dana Point and San Clemente.
The whale finally washed ashore at Grandview Beach in Encinitas and local contractors had to cut up the body and haul it off the beach, an arduous process that took about two days.
3:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about Scarlet.