The sad sight of a 42-foot fin whale washing up alive on Stinson Beach in Marin County, then gasping its last breath in front of onlookers, has turned into a rare opportunity for scientists. While whale beachings are relatively common, it's rare for for researchers to reach the animal so quickly after it dies, especially with an endangered species like the fin whale. “These large whales, by the time they wash up, they’re already severely debilitated,” said Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at The Marine Mammal Center. "This is our first live whale.” Wired magazine followed yesterday's necropsy on the beach then burial in a giant trench in the sand.
Sleek, fast, and mysterious, fin whales are an endangered species second in size only to the blue whale. Not much is known about their social structure or mating patterns. Because they prefer deeper waters, these whales are rarely seen except when they strand on beaches. What little we know about their vocalizations comes mainly from data gathered accidentally by seismometers on the seafloor off Washington state.
This particular fin whale’s last hours began early yesterday morning, when it stranded on Stinson Beach sometime after midnight. Shortly after 7 a.m., the stranding was reported to The Marine Mammal Center, located about an hour away. For several more hours, the whale wriggled in the sand, breathing about once per minute, with his nose in the sea and his tail fanned toward the shore, before finally dying.
As the tide began receding, teams from The Marine Mammal Center and the California Academy of Sciences assembled for the unusual autopsy, which is known as a necropsy when it’s performed on an animal. The procedure, which is ominously accompanied by the continual hum of knives being sharpened, involves inspecting the entire animal, inside and out. By the end, scientists would know more about an animal and why it died.
If you’ve never witnessed a whale necropsy, here’s how it works.
Fascinating, but a bit gruesome.
Photo: Nadia Drake for Wired