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Minke whale likely died after ship strike in San Juan Islands

A dead minke whale observed floating in the San Juan Islands on October 5  most likely died from a ship strike according to researchers. The  whale was reported to The Whale Museum’s Hotline by a commercial vessel. San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network Coordinator Jessica Farrer located it. It was towed to a private beach on a nearby island by the US Coast Guard.

Dead minke whale. SeaDoc Society photo

October 7, 2022 under authorization of NOAA, scientists and veterinarians from The Whale Museum’s SJC Marine Mammal Stranding Network (SJCMMSN), Cascadia Research Collective, World Vets, and the SeaDoc Society performed a complete necropsy.

While microscopic examination of tissues and multiple ancillary tests are still pending, initial exam suggests the animal was hit by a large ship. Severe bruising was present in almost a straight line on the left side of the body that extended almost the entire length of the animal from just behind the head to the end of the abdomen. The 5th rib was broken in half, part of one of the vertebrae was broken, and there was extensive bleeding in the lungs.

Examination of the ovaries showed that this 24’ female was of breeding age. While not as well-known as killer whales, many minke whales that frequent the San Juan Islands are known individuals. Initial attempts to photo-identify this animal were not successful, but minke whale researchers are still examining images.

Jessica Farrer, SJC MMSN Coordinator for the Whale Museum, said, “While it is always sad to find a dead whale, we were pleased that we could determine the cause of death. It’s work like this that will provide the data that will one day enable us to modify shipping lanes or vessel speeds to reduce this type of tragedy.” Help all whales and other marine mammals by reporting any sightings as soon as you can.

Also on October 5,  a dead humpback whale was reported on the Washington state outer coast. According to Cascadia Research Collective, examination showed clear indications of blunt force trauma likely from a ship strike.  This brings to five the number of whales found in Washington waters this year that died from ship strikes. Three gray whales were found earlier in the year. 

According to Cascadia Research Collective: Ship strikes have been an increasing cause of death of large whales in Washington especially since the early 2000s. The recent documented ship strikes are particularly troubling because these known cases represent a small proportion of the true number of ship strike deaths. Most whales killed by ship strikes are not observed and carcasses often sink and do not wash up to be examined like the two in the past week.

To Report a Stranding for San Juan County call 1-800-562-8832 or email hotline@whalemuseum.org

The hotline is a voicemail system that is checked frequently throughout the day. Please be sure to leave your name and phone number so we can get back to you. Information we love to know: the exact location of the animal, its species, approximate size, when you saw it, and whether it is dead or injured.

When is a marine mammal stranded? Legally, a marine mammal is stranded when it is on shore and cannot return to the water on its own. Practically this means:

Porpoises, dolphins, and whales should never be on the shore. If you see one on a beach, it is stranded. Please call it in.

Seals and sea lions frequently come on shore to rest and sleep. Please try to keep your distance (at least 100 yards). If the animal is dead or injured, or if it is in a busy public location, please call it in.

Do you want calls about dead marine mammals? Yes! We can learn a lot about an animal from its body, and we may collect it in order to conduct a necropsy (animal autopsy).

What if I see a harbor seal with a tag on its head? This seal is part of our pup tagging project, which aims to track the movement and survival of young seals. Please call in and tell us the tag number, and when and where you saw the animal. 

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