Experts make tough decision on beached whale calf
The euthanasia of a humpback whale calf this week on the Oregon Coast has people wondering if more could have been done to save the beached animal.
The public often wonders whether a whale can be towed back out to sea by the tail, said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries West Coast Region.
“It’s a great question and something we all think about,” he said. “But what we’ve learned from other strandings is it’s very hard, mainly because their bodies are not designed to be out of water in the first place. Gravity exerts pressure on their internal organs. Trying to move them can cause irreversible injury. Putting a rope around their tale and pulling runs the risk of breaking their spine.”
The fight to save the 6- to 8-month-old male calf began Wednesday morning when the 21-foot whale became stranded on the beach north of Waldport.
NOAA, the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network were among the groups that responded with staff, students and volunteers to try and help the whale during a two-day rescue effort.
They poured buckets of water on the whale, covered it in wet towels and dug a shallow pool around the calf.
During a midday high tide Wednesday, the whale managed to swim freely for a brief time before becoming stranded again.
One of the highest tides of the month came in at about 1 a.m. Thursday. But every time the whale got his nose pointed out to sea, incoming waves would hit him, pushing him broadside and shoving him higher onto the beach, said Oregon Coast Aquarium spokeswoman Sally Compton.
“The whale exerted a lot of effort trying to get back out to sea,” she said.
The next incoming tide Thursday wasn’t going to be high enough to reach the stranded whale and give him another shot at swimming free, she said.
Compton said the water offshore was unusually shallow because of a sandbar in the area, creating another hurdle for the whale to get back to deep water.
“At that point we decided there weren’t really any other options to prevent further suffering of the whale. We went ahead and decided to humanely euthanize it,” she said.
The whale was given a sedative to put him asleep, then a dose of potassium chloride to stop his heart.
“It’s extremely emotional. You want to help the animal,” said Compton, who was among the people wielding buckets and shovels to aid the whale. “We’re all in these jobs because we love animals and we care about the ocean and we care about their safety. While it’s extremely sad to watch it be euthanized and know there’s not much more that you can do for it, ultimately we know that this was the best option to prevent its suffering.”
Compton said the whale calf will be buried on the beach.
Hundreds of people responded to a video explaining the experts’ joint euthanasia decision on the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s Facebook page.
While most thanked those involved for trying to help the whale and ending his suffering humanely, others wondered why he couldn’t have been picked up in a sling with a tractor or towed back to the ocean by a boat.
YouTube videos that purport to show the successful towing of whales out to sea by the tail don’t reveal what is actually happening to the animal, according to NOAA.
Veterinarians and the International Whaling Commission agree towing a whale with a rope or cable is likely to cause pain and injury, NOAA said.
At the least, such actions can damage tail muscles, harming the whale’s ability to swim, feed and avoid predators, the agency said.
In the worst case scenario, dragging a whale can break the spinal cord and paralyze the animal, according to NOAA.
Creating a harness and pulling the animal forward by the body and pectoral flippers would be less harmful, but it’s almost impossible to get a harness around a grounded whale. Even if people could, a quick-release harness to prevent entangling the whale has yet to be developed, NOAA said.
Compton said the massive size and weight of whales — even when they are calves — makes it almost impossible for humans to push them back into the ocean by hand.
“These animals are extremely dangerous. One slap of a pectoral fin or its fluke could kill a human,” she said. “Especially when you’re out there in the breaking waves, if you were to have it roll over on you, you would be crushed. It’s just not safe for humans.”
A common strategy to help beached whales is to provide comfort care, including keeping the animal wet and cool, and wait for an incoming tide to free the whale, according to NOAA.
Even if whales manage to free themselves during a high tide, they are unlikely to survive if they’ve been out of the water for an extended period of time, NOAA said.
When they aren’t being buoyed by water, gravitational pressure can lead to respiratory and circulatory collapse. Pressure and lack of blood flow can also kill body tissue, the agency said.
Stranded whales that manage to free themselves often beach again and die, NOAA said.
Scientists are continuing to study why whales get stranded on land in the first place.
Strandings can occur because of ocean or weather conditions, the shape of the ocean floor near land, pollution or natural toxins, disease, emaciation and malnourishment and human-caused injuries, according to NOAA.
“It’s hard to get into the mind of an animal and find out what led to the stranding in the first place,” Milstein said.
The West Coast has seen a spike in gray whale strandings, with more than 60 dying by the midpoint of this year. NOAA has labeled the surge an Unusual Mortality Event, triggering a scientific investigation.
Many of the gray whales appeared malnourished and emaciated.
Milstein said gray whales dive to the ocean floor, where they gulp sediment and filter out shrimp-like creatures as food.
“They depend on eating large volumes of tiny organisms,” he said.
Gray whales gorge in the Arctic from late spring to early fall, then migrate down the West Coast to ocean waters off the coast of Mexico for the winter. If they didn’t build up enough fat reserves in the Arctic, they may not survive the winter in Mexico and their return journey to northern feeding grounds, according to whale experts.
Although gray whales are dying along the West Coast, scientists have stretched their investigation up to the Arctic to look at possible food supply issues there, Milstein said.
“Those animals were emaciated — and that tells us something about conditions in the ocean. Something has changed in their food supply,” he said.
But in the case of the humpback whale calf beached on the Oregon Coast, experts said he appeared healthy, at least from the outside.
Based on his age, he was either still dependent on his mother or had recently been weaned. Humpback whales typically wean around mid-August, Compton said.
She said the whale could have become disoriented or lost energy for some reason.
After the whale was euthanized Thursday, experts conducted a necropsy, an animal version of an autopsy.
Among other steps, they took samples of his blood and internal organs, Compton said.
Necropsies allow scientists to learn details like the contents of an animal’s stomach and what it was eating, and whether there are signs it was under attack by a predator such as a killer whale, Milstein said.
In many cases, necropsies lead to the publication of scientific papers that further people’s understanding of whales and ocean conditions, he said.
“Certainly it’s our goal to learn from these strandings,” Milstein said.
Experts remind the public it is illegal for unauthorized people to touch, feed or disturb marine mammals, including beached whales.
To report a beached whale, dolphin or porpoise, call the Oregon State Police at 1-800-452-7888.