Researchers examining dead whale in Richmond


The freshly-dead whale appeared Tuesday. Tuesday night, the Coast Guard towed it to Point Molate, a remote beach just north of the Richmond Bridge toll plaza.

"Examining a whale takes a lot of time, a day or two. So, we have a narrow window, maybe twelve hours, before the tide changes," said Dr. Frances Gulland, the veterinarian in charge.

By 9 a.m. the necropsy began in earnest. Researchers made slits in the blubber and pulled sections away from the carcass. Two hours later, they cut through to some of the organs. Whale intestines spilled from the remains onto the beach. Their contents will help reveal the whale's diet in its final days.

"We look at tissue for signs of trauma. We collect samples for chemicals, infectious diseases, toxins, a whole suite of tests," Dr. Gulland explained.

Gray whales often visit San Francisco Bay at this time of year as they migrate north from Mexico to the Aleutian Islands. Deaths happen more frequently than we might suspect.

"We average five dead whales a year," said Stan Minasian, a naturalist with the Oceanic Society, based at Fort Mason. "We lost two-dozen whales in 2000," he added. "That was a big year. Some whales were struck by ships. Others became stuck in fishing nets. Some were victims of domoic acid that poisoned their food."

Minasian does not, however, see a dead whale trend developing this year, no matter what significance or guilt human beings may attach to this occurrence.

"There is a natural mortality of all animals. When dolphins or whales get sick, they prefer to die near land, so we happen to see them. Why they prefer to die on or near land, we do not know," he said.

Later Wednesday, after researchers finish rummaging through and cutting away pounds of tissue from their mess on the beach, they must dispose of whatever remains.

"After we take the samples, we hope the Coast Guard can tow the rest to sea," said Leah Palestrant of the Marine Mammal Center. "That would be the most natural method."

Until then, Wednesday's whale anatomy lesson continues in large-scale, colorful detail.

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