Locals walking early in the morning by the ocean at Tajiguas Beach last week were very surprised when they found a 44-foot-long humpback whale stranded on the sand.
Kevin Loughran, a resident who has lived in the area for almost 30 years, walks along the beach daily; shortly after sunrise he received a call from a friend who had seen the whale. “I went down to see what was going on, and she was there,” he said.
Loughran said it was the first time he had seen a stranded whale in the area, although it was more common to see smaller animals like seals and pelicans or, even more often, abandoned panga boats .
The whale – a young female humpback – had stranded during high tide on New Years Eve morning, and Loughran said he wanted to make sure the proper authorities were aware. He contacted the Channel Islands Cetacean Research Unit, which studies whales, dolphins and porpoises abandoned or stranded in the Santa Barbara Channel.
Diane Alps, the large whale stranding coordinator for the research unit, arrived early the next day with her team to take measurements and tissue samples to determine potential factors leading to the whale’s death. There have only been a handful of stranded whale cases in recent years in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, she said. The last humpback whale she remembered was in August near Jalama Beach.
“As heartbreaking as it can be, it’s rare,” she said. In its work, she says, the opportunity to study whales in the region is invaluable, and the research unit ensures that the mammal’s death can provide insight into their way of life. “It provides an immense amount of information,” Alps said.
It is too early to know the cause of death, Alps said, but the research unit was able to determine that the whale was a 3-4 year old female humpback, “young” but not juvenile, and almost fully mature at 44 feet long. “We couldn’t see any obvious signs of trauma,” Alps said. She added that all organ and tissue samples appeared healthy at this point and that there was no sign of ingestion of foreign substances linked to an oil spill in the area.
It is particularly interesting that the humpback whales have been staying longer in recent years, she said, as they are typically found further south, near central Mexico and Costa Rica at this time of year. . Whale watching tours and others have noted the presence of humpback whales in the area in addition to more common sightings of blue and gray whales during the summer months. “These humpback whales are staying longer,” she said.
Depending on the location, stranded whales can either be left behind to decompose naturally, or sometimes donated to museums or other research institutions. Since Tajiguas is a state-owned beach, Alps said she prefers it to be left alone, creating a “nutrient-rich environment” for the natural habitat. This process can take weeks, depending on the time of year and the level of decomposition. In this case, the cold weather serves as a sort of refrigeration, although Alps said it would be noticeably different in just a week.
She warned against approaching or touching the carcass. Removing tissue or bone, she said, is a federal offense that could result in jail time. “People have to be aware and keep their distance,” Alps said. “We don’t know if there is anything toxic.”
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