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Santa Cruz Sentinel
April 2, 2009

Dead California gray whale towed away from Main Beach

SANTA CRUZ -- A dead California gray whale was found floating off the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf on Wednesday morning, drawing a small crowd of scientists and onlookers.

The whale later in the day was towed out to sea in hopes of keeping it off Main Beach. But by Wednesday night the mammal had drifted back and was on the rocks west of Its Beach, just below West Cliff Drive, according to Sean Van Sommeran, head of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation.

The carcass is about 25 feet long and appears to be a yearling, said Dave Casper, a Long Marine Laboratory veterinarian who was called to the scene as a member of the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Gray whales are traveling closer to shore now, as they migrate from Mexican to Alaskan waters.

Casper said he would love to examine the whale, but would need it to be towed to a beach, and Santa Cruz officials would rather it remain in the ocean as spring break is just around the corner.

"In the best of all worlds, we would do a necropsy," he said. "But wherever we do that, it would make a gargantuan mess. Would you want a stinky whale on the beach?"

After discussions with the Coast Guard in the late morning, city officials ended up towing the whale to just past the one-mile buoy, said Teri Sigler, stranding coordinator for Long Marine Lab.

City officials and researchers knew there was a chance they would see the whale again, however, and they did.

By Wednesday early evening the whale was about 200 yards off the coast near Mitchell's Cove, Sigler said. It had drifted west of the cove, then switched course and headed east, she said.

"We're watching it from shore, it's just a wait and see at this point," Sigler said. "High tide will be at 6 p.m. and that might push it up on the beach."

Wednesday morning, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey who had been working from a boat nearby did a cursory exam of the juvenile whale in the water, rolling it over to look for evidence of a clash with a boat, an orca or something else. And though they saw some gashes on the whale's body, none appeared to be serious enough to cause it to die, Casper said.

The whale was underweight, he added.

The mammal had been dead only a few hours, and was in fairly good condition, Sigler said.

"It's a mystery floating in the water that we would like to solve," she said. "But it's always the logistics of the day that have to be weighed.

"Everyone always wants to know why it died, and if it's fresh enough we can usually tell what killed it."

The Coast Guard would have towed it farther out to sea if it was determined the whale was a navigational hazard, Sigler said. But the whale in the morning was only about 100 yards from shore, across the wharf from Gilda's Family Restaurant, drifting toward the sand fronting the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It was just below the east side of the wharf for a while, in front of Stagnaro Charter Yachts, which offers whale watching and other tours.

It was first spotted around daybreak farther from shore, officials said.

Seberiano Lara was among the crowd watching the whale and snapping photos.

Lara said he has seen many whales traveling by in the 22 years he has worked at the wharf's Riva Fish House.

"But I've never seen one so close, and it's very sad," he said. "I wonder what happened."

Some scientists have noticed a change in the migration patterns of gray whales, which are in the peak of their northward migration just off the coast.

The whales have finished mating and calving in the warm Baja California waters and are headed north to the nutrient-rich waters off Alaska. But as those waters warm, the whales are having a harder time finding food.

In the past few years, the animals have had to press farther north, delaying their southward migration.

Scientists at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center have monitored the whales' migration through the Monterey Bay for the past 30 years.

"The whales southward migration is getting steadily later every year," said Wayne Perryman, the leading fisheries biologist on the gray whale research project at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. "I think the whales are feeding farther north than a decade ago, likely because as the Arctic is warming, the whole habitat is shifting."

Perryman believes gray whales, which reach up to 50 feet in length, still leave Alaska at the same time. But being farther north extends their southward journey home and they are showing up in Monterey Bay about a week later than they did in the 1970s.

The gray whales' roughly 12,500-mile trek is one of the longest mammal migrations in the world.

"Gray whales make a living in Alaska," Perryman said. "In the past, they ate a lot of amphipods, which are fat and juicy and carry a lot of energy."

But amphipods, small shrimp-like crustaceans, have decreased significantly, indicating a change in climate, he said. With the disappearance of their favorite food, whales have moved elsewhere to supplement their diet.

In the last few years, the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, where the whales do most of their feeding, are reaching temperatures never seen before, said David Rugh, a wildlife biologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

Also, gray whale numbers have steadily increased over the last few years, rounding out at about 20,000, close to the size of the original population, according to the American Cetacean Society.

The whales seem to be adjusting to the changing climate and Perryman thinks they will continue to do so.

"I think we can safely say the population has still been growing," Perryman said. "The good news is that gray whales seem to be very adaptable animals."

Sentinel correspondent Cassandra Brooks contributed to this report.

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Workers from the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf prepare to tow a Gray Whale away from shore on Wednesday. (Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel)

A pod of sea lions floats in the Monterey Bay as workers from the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf tow the carcass of a 25-foot long Gray Whale away from the Main Beach on Wednesday. (Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel)

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