(SUNDAY NIGHT TOPLINE: Juvenile humpback whale stranded and died this morning south of Fauntleroy ferry dock, towed off beach this evening, to be sunk Monday)
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) August 7, 2016
(Video added 9:24 – you can hear the whale still trying to breathe)
FIRST REPORT, 7:58 AM: In just the past few minutes, we’ve received multiple messages about what people describe as a whale in trouble south of the Fauntleroy ferry dock.
One texter says Washington State Ferries has contacted NOAA; before that, we advised the first person to contact Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which deals with more than seals, at 206-905-SEAL. Some have texted images including the photo and video above. On our way for a firsthand look.
8:27 AM: We’ve just arrived at the dock, as has Robin Lindsey of Seal Sitters. This is definitely a humpback whale – Robin describes it as juvenile. It’s raised its fluke out of the water and has been heard trying to breathe, but it’s in very shallow water. Photo added. The tide is going out – we’re an hour past the highest tide of the day already. It can still be heard breathing, loud chugging sounds. We can’t recall a stranded whale in West Seattle since the gray whale that died in The Arroyos in 2010.
8:43 AM: Robin says cetacean experts are on the way. Since the tide is going out, volunteers will guard the beach and as the tide goes out, will use buckets and towels to keep the whale hydrated if needed. It’s definitely still alive – it spouted a few minutes ago and we could feel the spray.
9:27 AM: The whale is still breathing – we’ve added a short video clip atop this story. The fence along the ferry-dock walkway is lined with spectators.
We’ve also talked with Jeff Hogan of Killer Whale Tales, a local whale researcher who we first met at the Arroyos whale stranding six years ago. He also told us that Cascadia and NOAA are on the way.
If you come to this area, please remember that the beach south of the ferry dock is private. There might be a call for volunteers later, if needed to keep this massive animal – a juvenile, but still massive – hydrated, so check back. We’ll be here for the duration. A WSF employee tells us she first saw it around 6:40, almost an hour before we started getting tips.
9:43 AM: As the water gets shallower, more of the whale’s head is visible, and its fluke is at the surface. Haven’t heard it breathe for a while now, sorry to say.
10:08 AM: Hogan and another whale expert are out with the humpback now, pouring water on it to keep it hydrated. (Video:)
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) August 7, 2016
We still haven’t heard it breathe for a while.
10:38 AM: Another view, from the beach:
We have crews both on the beach and on the dock. On the beach, NOAA tells us they’re still evaluating the situation and what to do next. For an overview of where this is happening – from the upper Fauntleroy Way bluff east of the dock, you can see the spectators and the entirety of the ferry dock:
The agencies/organizations on hand now include NOAA, Cascadia Research Collective (their stranding coordinator Jessie Huggins), MAST, as well as Seal Sitters and Killer Whale Tales.
10:56 AM: Sad news from our crew on the beach. Jessie from Cascadia says the whale has died, probably within the past half-hour. What happens next, has yet to be decided; when the gray whale stranded and died in The Arroyos in 2010, it was eventually towed away for a necropsy.
11:09 AM: More of the whale is becoming visible (photo above) as the tide continues to go out (low tide is at 2:29 pm, not a major low-low tide, it’ll be 2.0 feet).
Meantime, it’s raining, which has thinned the spectator crowd.
11:50 AM: On the beach, the experts/responders are continuing to strategize what to do next, who is available to help, and other logistics.
“We’re formulating a plan.”
12:12 PM: Cascadia Research Collective’s website includes a report on a June humpback death in Bremerton. It includes some context on these whales’ presence in Puget Sound, increasing in recent years. Meantime, researchers and responders plan to measure it soon. Among those represented here is MaST, which received the skeleton of the Arroyos gray whale.
12:38 PM UPDATE: Measuring it now. 11.9 meters long – about 30 feet. The measurements are in painstaking detail – each fin, each eye, etc.
1:04 PM UPDATE: Now on to tissue samples, to start the process of figuring out what led this whale to strand and die.
Low tide won’t bottom out for another hour and a half, so they have lots of time to work.
1:45 PM UPDATE: Just talked extensively with Lynne Barre from NOAA Fisheries and John Calambokidis of Cascadia. Here’s the video (low-res since we’re in the field):
Main points: The whale is bigger and older than first suspected – now they’re saying 39 feet long, and a few years old – still a juvenile, as reproduction begins around 5 years of age. They don’t know yet whether it’s female or male, nor have logistics decisions about its disposition been made. As we mentioned earlier in the story, Cascadia notes that humpbacks are becoming more common sights again in Puget Sound – and that’s part of dramatic population growth up and down the West Coast. This one, they say, clearly was emaciated, and that’s the flip side of the dramatic population growth – more whales seeking food.
P.S. Washington State Ferries asked us to remind you to please help them keep traffic flowing as they get to Sunday afternoon peak ridership/traffic here at Fauntleroy – if you’re watching from the fence on the dock, leave room for passengers to come and go; if you’re driving off the boat, please don’t slow down to gawk (we’ve seen a lot of that). WSF might also wind up helping move the whale – they’re checking around to see what kind of equipment they might have available at Eagle Harbor.
2:50 PM: Beachfront homeowners loaned volunteers and responders shovels so they could dig under the fins a bit, to prepare for floating the whale off on the evening high tide.
(The blue-shirted volunteer in our photo is David Hutchinson from Seal Sitters, a frequent WSB photo contributor.) Orange buoys are being secured to it, as well. And Robin from Seal Sitters tells us they’re finally getting close to figuring out vessel(s) that will be able to help get this off the beach at high tide tonight.
3:14 PM UPDATE: WSF’s Hadley Rodero is here on the beach and tells us they’re sending a team to help, with a vessel, so they can assist in getting the whale floated off the beach; it will be secured to the terminal overnight, which gives Cascadia/NOAA/etc. some time to figure out where to take it after that.
Obviously WSF has a stake in this because if not attended to, it could just float into the path of their vessels. Their team is not likely to arrive before 5 pm or so.
3:44 PM: New developments: For one, “Diver Laura” James is here with her 360-degree setup, to get a better look at the scene. (We’ll share her images when available.)
For two, the biologists/responders have decided to do some necropsy work right here, right now – they’re focused on the side that is not so visible from the dock – where there’s already been more extensive sampling (removal of part of its eye, for example) – but if you’re squeamish, this is not the time to come sightsee. This line of spectators apparently is not:
We by the way will put together a gallery tonight with many additional photos.
The experts/responders tell us they will decide tomorrow whether to sink the whale or tow it away for more necropsy work.
4:55 PM: The whale is female – the necropsy team found an ovary.
6:12 PM: The “shore gang” from WS Ferries has just arrived. (Thanks to WSF for the photo above – we’re still on the beach too but their photo’s better than ours.) With high tide approaching – 11.2 feet just after 9 pm – the whale is now fully back in the water again.
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) August 8, 2016
6:40 PM: John from Cascadia has been on and next to the whale (video above), securing it to some large floats brought by the WSF crew.
On shore, we’ve been talking with Donna Sandstrom from The Whale Trail, who, like other marine-mammal advocates here, has spent the day answering questions from so many curious people – the humpback will have an educational legacy, at the very least. The Seal Sitters volunteers/responders who have been here since early this morning also say the chance for so many people to learn more about whales has been important.
7 PM: As we Periscoped live (see the video above), the WSF crew has towed the whale over to the dock, where it will remain, tied to buoys and the dock, overnight. Tomorrow, NOAA tells us, the whale will be towed further out and sunk – there are designated spots where that’s allowable under state law, maybe as close as Blake Island, but they won’t decide until tomorrow. Now everyone who’s spent the day on the beach – researchers, responders, advocates, and local residents – is packing up; the Seal Sitters have taken down the beach-blockade tape. We have many more photos and are planning a separate gallery later with the toplines of this full day of coverage; thanks again to the people who let us know first thing this morning what they were seeing, almost 12 hours ago now.
(EARLY MONDAY NOTE: Sorry that the comments section on this closed itself around mid-afternoon Sunday – we’ve been unable to reopen it. But we published a separate photo-gallery followup that seems to be working properly, if you have something to say.)