Dead Humpback ‘Rare’ Research Opportunity

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Brianna Gibbs/KMXT
Last week KMXT told you about a collision between a humpback whale and the state ferry Kennicott. The incident sent a team of scientists to Kodiak to perform a necropsy – a full body, internal examination of the carcass.
Veterinarians determined the mammal died from a massive trauma and had injuries similar to those of whales that have been killed by ship-strikes. However, whether or not it was the Kennicott collision that actually did the killing is still under investigation by NOAA law enforcement. There is a possibility that the whale was killed by something else and the ferry collided with the floating body.
Still, University of Alaska Marine Mammal Specialist Kate Wynne said whale and boat collisions are an interesting conservation problem worldwide. While rare in small ports like Kodiak, she said places with larger, high-traffic shipping lanes are more prone to these incidents, and research is being done to help prevent them.
“In other areas, we have collected enough information on how big of a ship, how fast was it going, how big an animal, where did it hit on the animal, to start determining how fast is safe. Is there a safe speed for shipping lanes, for instance.”
Even in larger shipping areas, Wynne said whale and ship collisions are few and far between, which makes researching them a slow, difficult process. She said they are just now getting enough data worldwide to understand ship strikes and are still learning about the distribution of whales and where the mammals travel.

“This particular whale just outside of Kodiak was not in a traffic lane per say – it’s a little different than the big shipping lanes. And their distribution is very variable. It’s hard to say, but we’ll figure out how fast the ship was going, how big the ship was and that will go into this huge database.”

Using information in that database, the hope is to someday prevent these kinds of collisions. Wynne said one prevention theory she has toyed with is actually creating more noise on certain parts of the ship.
“And this may not be right, but, they hear noise on the far end of the ship, where the engine is. And on the bigger the ship, the farther away that noise is, so they may be thinking they’re surfacing at a safe spot. I’m thinking we need to make the bows louder. Something on the bow to make some sort of an alert sound to whales that’s at least as loud to whales that’s at least as loud as the engine at the, you know, 300-feet back there.”

Beyond the actual collisions, Wynne said there is still a surprising amount that isn’t known about whales.
“We just don’t get to see inside them very often. So any chance you get, the veterinarians that know pathological problems from normal things can examine an animal but we’re often finding new things about their anatomy just by having a chance to look at them.”
The silver-lining of the humpback that died last week in Kodiak is that researchers had a rare opportunity to look inside a fresh whale carcass. Wynne said they are certainly making the most of it and studying as much of the whale as they can.
In fact, the whale’s remains are still tied to Puffin Island, just beyond the breakwater of Kodiak’s harbor, and Wynne said they are waiting for the carcass to be cleaned naturally so they can conduct further examinations. She said the spot is a popular one for folks kayaking in the area and asked that people who come upon the carcass leave it alone, both out of respect for the research and because it’s the law.

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