Story by Phillip Guerrero, Naval Magazine Indian Island Public Affairs
PORT HADLOCK- The bones of a deceased gray whale anchored underwater at U.S. Naval Magazine (NAVMAG) Indian Island, will one day be used for educational purposes at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center (PTMSC). The gray whale died in May in Elliott Bay near downtown Seattle. The 30-foot long 30,000 pound juvenile female gray whale was 2 – 4 years old according to the National Marine Mammal Foundation.
Cascadia Research and the Washington Department of Natural Resources towed the whale to Indian Island for a necropsy. The whale was originally sighted alive in late April in the Puget Sound and was observed to have difficulty swimming and diving.
Biologists and veterinarians found that the whale suffered from a collapsed lung which filled its chest cavity with air. This condition made the whale too buoyant to dive and feed. On May 18, PTMSC volunteers and staff members anchored the whale’s body just off shore at NAVMAG Indian Island. Marine mammal veterinarian Dr. Peter Schroeder, National Marine Mammal Foundation, provided guidance to the team of volunteers and staff assembled.
The whale was wrapped in a fishing net and anchored with boat anchors just off Crane Point on Indian Island. At the time of the whale being anchored off shore, NAVMAG was involved in the Cascadia Rising and Joint Logistics Over the Shore exercises. Buoys were used to mark the location of the whale carcass to warn boaters to avoid the area.
Swimmers from PTMSC using dive suits, snorkels, and an underwater GoPro camera dove on three occasions to document the decomposition of the whale carcass. The divers saw ample crabs on the body of the whale, according to NAVMAG Indian Island Natural Resources Manager Sara Street. Initially it was thought that the body could take up to two years to decompose naturally. However, within three months very little was left of the whale except for its bones.
“Working with the Navy staff has been great. Sara (Street) was there for every visit assisting our staff and we very much appreciate the commander’s support of this unexpected and unique operation.” said Janine Boire, PTMSC Executive Director.
Using plastic barrels as flotation secured at low tide, the PTMSC crew then waited for high tide to tow the netting and bones to shore where a group of volunteers inventoried, scrubbed and rinsed each bone.
Eventually the bones will be articulated (reconstructed) to use for educational exhibit at the PTMSC much like the orca skeleton currently on display.
Along with the PTMSC and the U.S. Navy, the following organizations were involved the process of making the whale bones available for environmental educational purposes: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, National Marine Mammal Foundation, Cascadia Research Collective, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marine Mammal Investigations, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Enforcement, Washington State Parks, Washington Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Coast Guard, Seal Sitters, Orca Network, Seattle Aquarium, SeaDoc Society, AmeriCorps members and other volunteers.