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Blue whale carcass washes up on beach near Ventura

The cause of death is unknown, but scientists are eager to examine it. Ventura County plans to tow it through the water to another beach today.

September 15, 2007|Steve Chawkins and Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writers

Beached beside a highway 10 miles up the coast from Ventura, the immense carcass of a blue whale drew hundreds of spectators Friday as biologists began to delve into it for a rare, clinical glimpse of the world's largest animal.

Nobody yet knows what killed the whale, which is about 78 feet long and estimated to weigh around 100,000 pounds. But scientists are eager to do detailed examinations of the putrefying hulk, which washed ashore Thursday night just yards from Hobson County Park, a seaside campground off Pacific Coast Highway.

Ventura County officials planned to have the massive body towed about a mile through the water this morning to a beach with better access for heavy equipment and more sand for burying remains. The beach, just up the coast from Faria County Park, fronts a popular RV parking area, which will have to be partially cleared as scientists do their grim studies.

"There will be some unhappy campers, as they say," said Ron Van Dyck, a county parks official.

It wasn't the only blue whale death in recent days. Last weekend, a lifeless blue whale was found floating in Long Beach Harbor -- possibly hauled there inadvertently by a freighter that struck it in the Santa Barbara Channel, according to Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

On Wednesday, Seaman Eti Lotoa, standing watch on the U.S. Navy frigate Curts while on a training mission, sighted what may be another dead blue whale in the water 70 miles from San Diego -- but it also might be the carcass of the Long Beach whale, which was towed to sea by the Coast Guard, Cordaro said.

In Ventura County on Friday, lookie-loos parked by the roadside to take photos of the dead whale and give their children an up-close, if somber, look at a colossal example of an endangered species. An Amtrak train stopped on tracks across the road as the engineer took a photo with his cellphone and passengers goggled out the windows.

"Amazing!" said Terry Hewitt, a cook at Cal State Channel Islands who came to view the whale on her day off. "I was swimming out there yesterday and if that thing had passed me in the water -- well, oh my God!"

About 100 to 200 blue whales have been feeding in the Santa Barbara Channel during their annual summer migration from Mexico and Central America. This one was spotted from the air Tuesday, floating, and scientists tagging healthy blue whales were directed to it.

"There was no obvious sign of trauma," Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, said early Friday. Later, after a layer of blubber was stripped off, the whale appeared to have a massive bruise on its side.

"Even when there's a collision, the situation is cryptic," said Mate, adding that Frances Gulland, the director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., was brought to the scene for her expertise in deciphering the cause of cetacean deaths.

Gulland, a rock climber by avocation, hoisted herself up the carcass using knives like climbers' pitons. After examining the uncovered bruise, she offered a tentative conclusion to the gathered scientists.

"I have a diagnosis," she said. "It got thwacked on its side. There's only one thing that could do that -- a ship." However, that conclusion will remain tentative until scientists can check for broken bones and other signs of trauma.

Although about 3,000 of the world's 12,000 blue whales are thought to swim off the West Coast of the Americas, they seldom wash ashore. When they do, scientists scramble for the chance to "learn more about their basic biology and establish baseline data for the species," said Paul Collins, curator of vertebrate zoology for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

In a baseball cap and jeans, Collins was at the scene Friday, watching as the whale's body, embedded in the sand, was rolled gently by the waves breaking around it. He and other scientists were preparing for a necropsy on the animal -- a complicated procedure that entails taking at least 35 measurements, cutting holes in the carcass and extracting tissue samples, bodily fluids and stomach contents.

He said the work would take days and might involve the use of heavy equipment to peel back thick layers of blubber. When the lab tests are completed, Collins said, scientists could have crucial information on the animal's death -- such as whether domoic acid, a substance produced by algae and implicated in die-offs of seabirds and sea lions, might be to blame.

When whales wash ashore, the owner of the coastline where they beach is responsible for dealing with their remains after scientific examination, said Cordaro, the National Marine Fisheries biologist.

On Friday, Ventura County officials briefly considered towing the whale to the broad expanse of sand at Port Hueneme, about 20 miles down the coast. However, they abandoned the plan because a towboat would run afoul of the law by hauling the carcass through shipping lanes.

The whale's skeleton may be dismantled and shipped to a museum or university. Oregon State and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History have expressed interest.

If it goes to Santa Barbara, it would be the museum's second blue whale. Five have been beached since 1980 in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, said Collins, the museum curator. The skeleton of one that came ashore at the base of a 100-foot cliff at Vandenberg Air Force Base was winched up, bone by bone, and in a two-year process, cleaned and reassembled outside the museum.

A distinctive presence, the skeleton has been the backdrop for photos of countless children over the years.

"It's become something of an icon," Collins said.

--

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

ken.weiss@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this report.

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