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Santa Cruz Sentinel
May 16, 2004

Dead gray whale sits off shore

CAPITOLA — Lifeguards are keeping a close eye on a hulking gray whale carcass that lay entangled in a kelp bed just outside the surf line near the Capitola Wharf Saturday.

The young whale was believed to have been killed by an orca, also known as a killer whale, and its headless, decomposing carcass measured about 25 feet long, said Capitola city Lifeguard Captain Eric Mitchell, who had paddled out early Saturday to view the carcass.

By Saturday afternoon, Mitchell was scanning the sea with binoculars from his tower, looking for sharks in search of an easy meal, while the gleam of the whale’s exposed blubber could be seen from the Esplanade.

"Sharks are obviously a concern, and we have been advising distance swimmers of the whale," he said.

Officials will close the beach if sharks are spotted, he said.

In the meantime, Mitchell said lifeguards are hoping the 4,000-pound carcass will drift back to sea to prevent the burdensome, smelly task of dealing with a beached whale.

The whale was first spotted in Capitola Friday morning, and by Saturday, the carcass had drifted only about 100 yards eastward, down the coast and a little closer to shore, lifeguards said.

According to Sean Van Sommeran of the Santa Cruz-based Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, boaters saw orcas kill the whale last week about four miles off the coast of Moss Landing. Van Sommeran said it wasn’t uncommon for orcas to come into Monterey Bay in April and May to feed on young gray whales. Nor is it uncommon for great whites to feed on the carcasses, he said, though they are not in local waters full-strength until fall.

The dead whale was probably about one year old and sank after it was killed, filled with gas, surfaced and floated toward shore, Van Sommeran said.

Several people asked about the whale, lifeguards said, but children still splashed around near shore, unfazed by the increased risk of sharks.

Kelly Bartholf of Hollister said her 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, and Sarah’s friends were swimming close to shore and did not feel they were in danger.

"It’s just ocean life," she said. "But I do think it’s kind of odd it’s been left out there. You would think they would tow it away."

Lifeguards said they did not have immediate access to a boat that could move the carcass and even if they did, dead whales often drift back toward shore.

If the carcass washes ashore, the whale would most likely be buried.

"If it’s a big one, it’s usually a mess and they dig an extremely big hole," said State Parks Lifeguard Supervisor Chip Bockman. "It’s a big deal."

But lifeguards said it was hard to tell where winds and currents would take the carcass.

Contact Cathy Redfern at credfern@santacruzsentinel.com.

The gray whale
Adult can reach lengths of 50 feet and weigh 35 tons. Males are slightly smaller than females.

  • Whales summer in the Arctic and migrate up to 6,000 miles south for the winter, traveling along the U.S. Pacific coast.

  • Diet consists of shrimp-like amphipods and other bottom-dwelling animals, which the whales dive to depths of 400 feet to eat.

  • A natural predator of gray whales is the orca, or killer whale, which feeds on the calves.

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