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News | May 1, 2009

NAS Whidbey Island Opens Its Beaches for Whale Necropsy

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tucker M. Yates Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, Det. Whidbey Island

Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island opened its Polnell Point beaches to allow for the necropsy of a deceased 30-ton gray whale on the Seaplane Base, April 29-30.

The 30-ton male marine mammal was found floating off the coast of nearby Camano Island, April 26. Upon the request of the Orca Network and the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, April 27, NAS Whidbey Island agreed to provide a venue to facilitate a necropsy to determine the whale's cause of death.

"They needed to get the whale out of the seaway and put it in a place where they could perform the necropsy and let it decompose where it wasn't right next to somebody's house," said Capt. Gerral David, NAS Whidbey Island commanding officer. "We've got beach on the Seaplane Base away from housing areas that presents itself as a good place to do that."

NAS Whidbey Island maintains a strong ethic of interagency cooperation and environmental stewardship. The acceptance of the whale to its shores was a reflection of this commitment.

"As we work with all of these other agencies, it lets them know that we care about the environment as much as they do. This allows us, by helping with the necropsy, to determine what's going on with these whales that causes them to die and see if we, as humans, can help prevent that," said David.

A major concern with the whale was the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard deemed it a navigation hazard while afloat in the waterways around Island County.

"The Coast Guard was thrilled that we got a buoy on it (April 27) so it could be seen, and now we're going to get it clean out of the water," said Matt Klope, a member of the Orca Network, who is also a Department of Defense civilian employee on board NAS Whidbey Island.

"By getting that navigational hazard out of the channel out here we're doing a lot of good for people," added Klope. "Also, the good thing about putting it here is that we don't have to worry about disposal; someone doesn't have to tow it off and sink it somewhere."

An attempt was made to haul the body April 28 with a crab boat, but the watercraft had insufficient power to accomplish the task, due to inclement weather. Upon hearing of the dilemma, Brett Ginther, of Deception Pass Tours, offered up a 38-foot aluminum jet catamaran tour boat to assist in bringing the animal to shore. At high tide on the night of April 28, the whale was tied off to be beached for low tide April 29. The trip lasted five hours, with a top speed of approximately five miles-per-hour.

"We're involved a lot in the community and just wanted to show our support," said Ginther. "I'd never been to that beach before and didn't know what to expect maneuvering out there at night, but everything worked out alright."

A series of activities and tests were involved in the necropsy. Measurements were taken, samples of marine life inhabiting the body of the animal, and inspection and testing of the innards were included in the process. The group performing the autopsy was comprised of members from the Orca Network, Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Cascadia Research.

"We're looking for signs of human interaction; we'll be taking samples for genetic analysis and also for contaminant analysis. So, we'll be looking for toxins and disease screening. We'll try to get some intestinal contents to see if it has eaten anything nasty," said Jessie Huggins, a Cascadia Research biologist.

A conclusive verdict as to the cause of death is pending.

As the whale decomposes, the bones will be made available to organizations through the Orca Network. The skull is expected to go to Deception Pass State Park.