Scientists and locals blubber over dead whale
August 16, 2011
For 53 days, the curious case of a gray whale living in the Klamath River around the U.S. Highway 101 bridge captured the attention of the Northern California community. Despite the best efforts of scientists, activists and residents, the strange saga came to a tragic end early on Tuesday morning when the 45-foot adult female beached herself on a sandbar and died, according to a report by Yahoo’s GrindTV blog.
The gray whale, nicknamed “Mama,” and her calf first entered the river and began swimming upstream on June 23, during a regular migration from the species’ nursing grounds in Baja, California to their home waters in the Arctic Ocean. Such an unexpected sight caused a sensation among tourists and locals alike: The bridge was often crowded with observers, some of whom began renting kayaks and boats in order to get a closer look.
Three weeks ago, the baby whale finally swam back out to sea, but its mother stayed put. According to an article in The Times-Standard, repeated efforts by scientists with Humboldt State University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the University of California-Davis and the Yurok Tribe (whose reservation borders on the river) to get Mama to follow were unsuccessful. Initial attempts to drive her downstream using hoses, noisemakers and the sounds of predators such as the killer whale failed, as did a later plan to lure her with recordings of a gray whale pod.
The entire situation raised the concern of animal activists, who worried that “Mama” might be sick or injured and that all the attention was just further aggravating her condition. In a forwarded e-mail, the Pelican Network, a conservation advocacy group on the Central Coast, shared requests that people leave the whale alone until she was ready to swim home herself.
Unfortunately, it’s too late for Mama. Yesterday afternoon, observers noticed that she had developed respiratory problems and was struggling to swim in an upright position. Later in the evening, she swam onto a sandbar in the middle of the river, where she was coaxed back into the water. After beaching herself for a second time, she died at four this morning.
Earlier today, scientists were still conducting a necropsy in hopes of pinpointing the whale’s exact cause of death.
"Based on the photos and everything, her fat layer looks good, so we don't think she starved to death,” Sarah Wilkin, stranding coordinator for NOAA fisheries, told the Associated Press. “There's something else going on.”
Meanwhile, crowds gathered on the bridge to pay their final respects to Mama.
“It’s very sad,” Thomas O’Rourke, chairman of the Yurok Tribe, said to the AP. “It started to become part of the community.”
For more pictures and details, check out the blog of photographer Ashala Tylor, who has been tracking Mama’s story since July.
Top photo by Linda Tanner