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Rare saber-toothed whale washes ashore in Venice Beach

October 16, 2013|By Jason Wells
  • Heather Doyle, director of Heal the Bay's Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, points at the carcass of a rare Stejneger's beaked whale that was picked up from Venice Beach early Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013.
Heather Doyle, director of Heal the Bay's Santa Monica Pier Aquarium,… (Nick Fash / Heal the Bay )

A rare whale known for its saber-like teeth and preference for frigid subarctic waters washed ashore in a highly unlikely place Tuesday night: Venice Beach.

The female Stejneger’s beaked whale — also known as the Saber-toothed whale — was loaded onto the bed of a truck early Wednesday and taken for an autopsy that will give scientists a rare glimpse into the lives of the elusive mammals.

So rare, in fact, it sent Nick Fash, an education specialist for Heal the Bay, pedaling his bike down to the site "as fast as I could."

"We were very lucky," said Fash, who works at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. "These whales are incredibly rare and almost never seen in the wild."

The roughly 15-foot long whale, he said, was reportedly spotted overnight, sending crews from the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum scurrying to retrieve the carcass.

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Covered in bites from so-called cookie-cutter sharks, which feed by gouging round plugs of flesh from larger animals, the carcass was extremely well-preserved, Fash said. The whale was probably alive when it washed ashore, he added.

An autopsy will hopefully reveal how the whale died and more information about its diet, Fash said. The whales are so rarely seen in the wild that autopsies of washed-up carcasses are scientists' main source of gathering information. And to find one in such good condition, this far south, is basically unheard of, he added.

The whales are believed to dive deep in subarctic waters to feed on small deep-water fish and cephalopods, such as squid. Males are known for their tusk-like teeth that jut out from a portion of their lower jaws. The teeth of females and juveniles, though, remain hidden beneath gum tissue of the mouth.

They spend most of their lives in subarctic waters, and are thought to migrate south down within range of Northern California, Fash said. How it could have ended up so far off course would probably remain a mystery, he added.

Just the same, the thrill of such a rare opportunity would not be wasted.

"This is the best," Fash said. "[Previous finds] aren't anything like this. This is a treat."

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jason.wells@latimes.com

Twitter: @jasonbretwells / Facebook / Google+

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