Rare fin whale found dead near Kodiak

a whale
The fin whale washed up on her own without needing to be dragged higher onto the beach. (Courtesy Matt Van Daele/Sun’aq Tribe)

A fin whale washed up in the Pasagshak State Recreation Area, near the end of Kodiak Island’s road system, late last month. It’s unclear how it died, but the whale was in remarkably poor health. 

Fin whales are the second largest whale species in the world after blue whales and are usually pretty rare around Kodiak.

Matt Van Daele is the natural resources director for the Sun’aq Tribe in Kodiak. Fin whales can live up to 90 years in the wild but Van Daele said this one was between 10 and 14 years old. 

“She was extremely emaciated,” he said. “She was basically like a 53-foot-long snake and that was very sad to see.” 

He said when they found the lone whale, she had several bruises all along her body. 

“It’s possible that she may have stranded while she was still alive and then died during the night before anyone found her,” he said. 

In all, about 40 people including volunteers, veterinary staff, and staff from the Sun’aq Tribe came to help with the necropsy last week.

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She was easily accessed by road and about 45 people came to help with the necropsy. The fin whale washed up on her own without needing to be dragged higher onto the beach. (Courtesy Matt Van Daele/Sun’aq Tribe)

Van Daele said whales dying near town used to be pretty rare for the island but now this is the second severely unhealthy whale they’ve done a necropsy for this year. The Sun’aq Tribe organized a necropsy for a humpback whale in September.

There isn’t enough data for biologists to declare a trend yet, but these whales are being found on the heels of an unusual mortality event for gray whales in the Pacific Ocean. Van Daele said these two starved whales in a single year doesn’t bode well for populations near the Kodiak Archipelago. 

“I personally and scientifically am concerned about what we’re going to be seeing in the next couple of years with our local whales, if these things actually do turn into trends,” he said.

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Poor road conditions delayed the necropsy several hours from the initial plan to meet near dawn. (Courtesy Matt Van Daele/Sun’aq Tribe)

For now, all biologists can do is monitor populations and wait for their samples to get their lab results. Van Daele said the fin whale’s corpse is still on the beach for now, but they plan to bury it in the hopes they can save the skeleton to assemble and display in town. 

“Nowhere in Alaska actually has a fin whale skeleton and we’d really like to have this be a community landmark,” he said. “That’d be pretty neat for our fin whale to stay home here so that we can enjoy it.” 

The ground in the area is frozen after several days of freezing temperatures, but once it’s buried it will take a few years for it to decay to just a skeleton. Van Daele said while the whale might have had a sad death, they hope displaying it can be a source of pride for the community.

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