Stranded

A whale on a beach is quite a sight. Even after attending plenty of whale strandings over the years, I am still shocked when the true scale of a whale on the shore hits home. The sheer height of it, the size of a pectoral fin, the width of the fluke, the incredible mass right there, almost immovable.

Having overheard a conversation in a coffee shop about a recently stranded gray whale, I knew I had to backtrack to see it. The rare opportunity to see one of these whales I’m following up close far outweighed the effort required to cover an additional and unexpected 14 miles that dank and foggy day.

Back at Patrick’s Point State Park, a ranger explained which trail to take to Agate Beach and that the whale was half a mile north. Down at sea level, waves crashed onto the fine shingle, white-water rushing up the sloped beach. The beach, sea and sky were all monochrome in the thick fog.

A dark shape at the water’s edge became more whale-like as I slogged through the shingle. A team of scientists from Humboldt State Univeristy (HSU) were toing and froing with cameras, samples and elbow-length gloves. A ranger and a couple more bystanders, like me, stood back watching the activity, wrapped up against the cold. On his side on the sloping shore, one pectoral fin raised to the sky, was an adult male gray whale. His open jaw revealed pale baleen plates and a blue-grey tongue. Seagulls pecked at freshly cut square holes where blubber samples had been collected and blubber thickness measures; this guy was on the thin side.

Chatting with a scientist from HSU, I heard of their efforts to identify the individual and collect what samples they could. The whale was too decomposed to warrant a full necropsy but any information they could glean would be valuable during the on-going Unusual Mortality Event.

Sporadic wafts of decomposing whale kept me at bay and I took photos with my telephoto lens, trying to capture both the intricate detail of the whale and its imposing size, this creature that had swum thousands of miles at sea and now looked so alien on the shore. Finally I left, turning often to look back until the whale was once again just a dark shape in the fog, and then gone.

Piece by piece

It was in May 2000 that Stacy Studebaker found a dead gray whale washed up on Pasagshak beach and saw an opportunity for the whale to become an educational project. Just four days later, she’d pulled together a team and the whale was buried beneath 10 ft of soil in a trench 45 ft long where it was left to decompose.

The real work began four years later. Piece by piece, the whale’s bones were excavated, cleaned, left outside to be bleached by the sun, then dried in a heated basement. Two years after that, the skeleton was ready to be reassembled, supported by a custom-made steel support system.

Next, the whale was carefully transported to the new Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Centre in five pieces and duly reassembled. In 2007, seven years after first being found, the whale’s skeleton was finally back in one piece.

Now, in 2019, the skeleton display is as impressive as ever, suspended in the visitor centre. I squelched around it in waterlogged shoes having just arrived from Pasagshak myself the day after kayaking with gray whales in the bay. Seen from a kayak or as a skeleton on display, these whales are huge. As big perhaps as the challenge of moving one, although that too was possible piece by piece.