Crowds gather in Pacifica as scientists examine dead whale

Byby Wayne Freedman and Janet O KGO logo
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Crowds gather in Pacifica as scientists examine whale
Large crowds gathered in Pacifica on Wednesday to witness a strange event, as veterinarians performed a necropsy on an endangered whale that washed up a day earlier.

PACIFICA, Calif. (KGO) -- People traveled to a beach on the Peninsula Wednesday to witness a strange event, as veterinarians performed a necropsy on an endangered whale that washed up a day earlier.

The carcass of the 49-foot sperm whale that appears to have died at sea within the last week washed ashore next to Mori Point in Pacifica on Tuesday. It's more than a curiosity. It's an endangered species and a rare occurrence that Northern Californians have seen only 18 times in the past four decades.

PHOTOS: Dead sperm whale washes ashore in Pacifica

An event this rare draws researchers. They arrived in force on Wednesday morning.

"Lifetime day, bucket list kind of a day," said Caitlin Brown with the Marine Mammal Center.

Sue Pemberton with the California Academy of Sciences added, "Dead whales is (sic) not uncommon. Having them wash onshore is pretty uncommon."

The most important work that happened on this beach on Wednesday was a bit too graphic for the evening news or any general audience.

When the tide went out, researchers like Brown dug in through blubber, then muscle tissue, then deeper looking for a cause of death or maybe a trend.

"We are assessing for things like hemorrhage, trauma, bruising," she said. "We're assessing the bone structure to make sure all of the bones are in their natural position and then we want to get to the interior organs."

"Well we did have a sperm whale out in Point Reyes a couple of years ago, I think in 2008, that had 500 pounds of fishing net in his stomach," Pemberton said.

So far, there are no clear answers. At the end of the necropsy, biologists and veterinarians confirmed that the results were inconclusive and there is no official cause of death. They say there were no broken bones and that the whale had been dead too long to get anything of use out of the tissue.

News of the dead whale brought a steady stream of onlookers on Wednesday morning

"I saw on the news that the whale was down here at our local beach and I said that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the boys to come see something so beautiful and majestic," said Pacifica resident Alanna Niamauvigal.

"It was very big, very cool," said one boy.

As far as how the carcass will be removed? Scientists have yet to figure that out. Burying it may be one option, or letting Mother Nature take its natural course.

"I grew up in Pacifica there's been a few over the years," said Pacifica resident Peter O'Shea. "I think sometimes they leave them, I think then the ocean just takes them back out with high tides."

Scientists worked around the tide all afternoon to finish their work.

The Marine Mammal Center says in its 40 year history, it's responded to 17 dead whales found along Northern California.