Humpback found dead near Kodiak gets Alaska’s first 2023 whale necropsy

a whale
Biologists conduct a necropsy on a humpback whale that washed ashore near Kodiak on Sept. 25, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

A humpback whale was found dead near Kodiak Island on Sept. 25. Federal and tribal workers brought the corpse to a nearby island the next day to try to determine the cause of death. It’s the first whale necropsy in Alaska this year and biologists hope it could help explain why local humpback populations seem to be shrinking.

Matt Van Daele, the natural resources director for the Sun’aq Tribe in Kodiak, said very few whales were spotted near the community this summer.

“Usually you see many humpbacks around and it just seems like they just left,” he said. “They went somewhere else – probably because there wasn’t a lot of food around here so they went to where there was food.”

a whale
Investigators say the whale was a female sub-adult, which may have been struck by a boat. It also had wounds from sharks and orca attacks. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Van Daele said dozens of dead whales have been reported around the archipelago since January, but this is the first one they’ve been able to study.

“It’s just so lucky that this was spotted and that we were able to actually lasso it and drag it and have everybody available in the drop of a hat,” he said. 

His team brought the whale to a small island away from the road system to avoid curious bears.

The crew immediately split into three teams. The dirty team worked with the dead whale directly and made incisions, the clean team collected samples and sharpened knives, and the semi-clean team took photos as well as walked supplies back and forth. 

Van Daele said the humpback was likely a female sub-adult, weaned from her mother but still too young to mate. He said she probably lived a hard life. 

“There’s a bunch of divots along the abdomen, which are cookie cutter shark bites, you can see healed wounds from previous encounters with orcas on the flippers, so this whale’s definitely been through a lot and survived a lot,” he said.

Kathy Burek, a veterinary pathologist with Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services, said the young whale still had its tongue so it’s unlikely the humpback was killed by a predator like an orca. She was more curious about some damage around her left eye that could have come from getting hit by a boat.

“Could be some torn tissue like the jaw or the tongue, then just above it you can see where there’s a very distinct pattern, linear area of hemorrhage so I think we’re already getting a feel there was some kind of trauma,” Burek said.

Crews cut and measured blubber thickness, took samples of the baleen, and several photos and videos. 

Then the dirty team made its first cuts to the whale’s organs. 

Van Daele said the crew was lucky to have some wind. He said the smell of a rotting whale’s organs is beyond description. 

The crew took samples of the humpback’s organs and worked the necropsy until about sunset, when the tide started to rise. 

Techs noticed the whale had no food in her stomach and she was in poor health. 

Labs are currently backlogged with marine mammal necropsies so full results from the samples won’t be available for about a year. Van Daele said their best guess for now is that the young humpback was likely too weak to get out of the way of a ship that struck her head. 

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