Southeast Alaska researchers get rare opportunity to study a sperm whale

A team of marine mammal experts perform a necropsy on a male sperm whale. (Photo courtesy Johanna Vollenweider/NOAA)

An endangered sperm whale carcass was spotted on the beach recently near Juneau. It’s a rare sighting along the Inside Passage waters. Sperm whales typically feed in the open ocean.

Kate Savage, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was the lead veterinarian on the job. Normally, she’s decked out in teal scrubs teaching students how to do necropsies on much smaller marine mammals, like frozen sea lions.

But last week, she got to help lead a team to work on a 48-foot-long sperm whale.

“People were just, like, really into learning as much as we could and excited to be working on a species no one had worked on before,” Savage said.

Only two dead sperm whales have washed up on Alaska shores to study since the 1990s: one in Homer and another near Kenai Fjords National Park. So the opportunity to examine the whale was particularly exciting for local scientists.

Living sperm whales have been spotted in the Inside Passage before. But sightings are infrequent. Savage said marine biologists have theorized this young male may have been following a group and feeding on squid, based on the contents of its stomach.

A team of marine mammal experts perform a necropsy on a male sperm whale. (Photo courtesy Johanna Vollenweider/NOAA)

A plane reported it dead last week north of Berners Bay in Lynn Canal.

Upon arrival on the scene, Savage and a team went to work trying to determine the cause of death. Immediately, they noticed long slices around the dorsal fin — injuries consistent with a vessel strike.

Savage said it looked like significant trauma.

“Just jumbled vertebrae and lots of fractures,” Savage said. “Big fractures and small fractures. I could see some of the spinal cord.”

There were other signs that indicated this whale probably wasn’t floating dead in the water before a vessel collided with it. Savage said a tissue sample will ultimately determine the whale’s time of death.

Last year, seven whales in Alaska were killed by vessel strikes.

But her team members weren’t the only ones to marvel at the strange sight. Someone took most of the whale’s lower jaw before researchers went back for their second examination.

NOAA Enforcement is asking whoever took the body part to return it. It’s illegal to possess any piece of an endangered marine mammal.

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