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This happened about 5 miles from my house yesterday.

Stranded whale struggles to survive
Turnagain Arm roadside clogged with cars and fascinated observers


By DOUG O'HARRA
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: May 13, 2003)

A whale rolled in the surging tide five miles south of Girdwood on Monday afternoon. The whale was beached in the morning on the outgoing tide in Turnagain Arm. (Photo by Jim Lavrakas / Anchorage Daily News)

A large whale stranded all day Monday in a shallow channel near the head of Turnagain Arm flexed and shuddered when the late-afternoon tide surged against its dark, mottled body.

After being stuck for at least eight hours in water only a few feet deep just northwest of Peterson Creek, the whale could finally try to swim free.

As the silty water began to rise, the animal reached with the right flipper, then thrust up and down with its white-rimmed tail, struggling to turn its 25-foot-long body into a roiling current.

Suddenly the whale began to roll.

While dozens of people watched from shore with horrified fascination and cars slowed in traffic lanes of the Seward Highway, the whale tumbled over and over before coming to rest upside down in frigid water.

"Come on, keep fighting it," called Mike Adams, a law enforcement officer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who had been standing watch over the whale for hours. "Come on, bud."

"Swim, man, swim," added Rich Capitan, an education outreach specialist with the Alaska SeaLife Center, as he reported the scene via cell phone to the center's head veterinarian in Seward.

A minute passed and the whale rolled upright, white mist spraying explosively from the blowhole atop its head.

"YES!" someone cheered.

"There's a breath," Adams said. "Now he's going to try to swim."

But it wouldn't be easy.

Before the crowd of motorists and tourists and television cameras, the whale, tentatively identified as a gray, fought to escape Turnagain's treacherous tides, beached in a location that has trapped or killed several other whales over the past decade. By evening, the whale had submerged and was rising to breathe but was not moving forward in the water.

"I don't like where he's at," Adams said a little before 6 p.m.

The animal had been reported grounded before 9 a.m. to the U.S. Forest Service in Girdwood. Adams, a NOAA law enforcement officer, responded to the scene by about 10:30 a.m.

The whale lay about 300 yards offshore, its long rugged back facing the highway and its head mostly submerged. It breathed loudly every 50 to 55 seconds, Adams said. A few times per hour, it would raise its flukes or head, seeming to twist itself. It never lifted its mouth or eyes from the water.

As the hours passed, people started stopping. The spectacle of cars along the road and a great gray bulge offshore drew a procession of fishermen, tourists, families and commuters. There were a United Airlines flight crew, a family from Colorado, hooligan fishermen.

Some observers would creep farther out and into the beach grass. Adams found himself repeatedly ordering people to keep at least 100 yards back. It's against federal law to approach or harass marine mammals.

"Hey, guys," Adams would call, "we're trying to keep people back in the grass so the whale doesn't become more stressed than it already is."

"Who's we?" a man replied.

"I don't think it can get more stressed than it is already," another retorted.

But everyone was cooperative once the officer explained the whale was still alive and just needed time to refloat.

"He's going to die, huh?" one man said.

"He's actually doing quite well," Adams said. "He's still in the water, and the tide is about to change."

Under high clouds and a chilly breeze, the scene started to seem like a roadside bird-and-mammal show, with a trio of bald eagles standing like white-headed fireplugs on the expanse of mud. A black bear and at least one cub could be seen about 1,200 feet up on the mountain overlooking the site.

"This is a good omen," said Lance Young, a Washington resident on his way to Seward for halibut fishing with three friends. "It means we'll probably catch a lot of big fish tomorrow."

But the area grew congested. Semis hauling gravel blared horns as people dashed along the shoulder and darted across the road. When a bore tide came into view about 4:30 p.m. far out on the flats, at least 30 cars clogged the highway and people milled along the shore and sat in the grass.

Girdwood trooper William Welch arrived with flashing lights and a whoop from a siren. He began ordering people to move vehicles. "We've had many, many complaints from drivers almost hitting people walking up and down the roadway," he said, exasperated.

About that time, the current began to build against the whale and it started rolling. At one point, it lay curled against the water like a giant boulder in a river rapid, half buried by a muddy standing wave. The whale rolled a few more times and finally straightened out, facing into the current.

In the end, the whale was under water and apparently stationary in a place that had been dry during low tide. Still, the animal was rising and blowing every 70 seconds. Maybe it would survive. No one could say.

"I think we all hoped to see him breech, tail hop over and head out of here," Adams said. "I'll be happy if I take a flight in the morning and I don't see him grounded."
 

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As a former volunteer fireman, I have often wondered, in this situation, could a 2" fire hose with 150 - 200 psi, be used to dig a trench so the whale could swim back to sea.
I realize that it would take several hoses and capable men to acheive this, But has it ever been tried?
One good pumper truck can move a lot of water!

Halfbreed
 

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The problem with where the whale was located is the glacial outwash basin near the head of Turnagain Arm. The quickclay or powdery silt is very much like quicksand. Don't go out onto the mud flats. There are some terrible horror stories of folks that have gotten stuck out there and they weren't able to be freed before the tide came back in. That's a subject for another post, though.

It's a great idea and it might have worked in a different location, but in the Turnagain Arm or the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. Way too dangerous.
 

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Alyeska, you're right about that bay area, down here I forget about the local "quicksand" traps around Anchorage. But where the beach is all sand I think this could work. It would be worth a try. You certainly know I'm no peta person, but I certainly can't stand, to stand by, and watch any animal suffer neadlessly. Not to say anybody there was . :( You know what i'm saying.

John
 

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Sad ending

Whale stranded in Turnagain Arm dies
Marine mammal found dead Wednesday morning


Gray whale still trapped in Inlet mud

By Doug O'Harra
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: May 14, 2003)
A gray whale that fought for two days to escape Turnagain Arm's swift tides and dangerous silt flats - drawing anxious attention from residents and school children around the country who got updates over the internet - was found dead Wednesday morning in a shallow channel about five miles southeast of Girdwood.

The carcass was lying on the rocks against the bank, mostly in the water, near Mile 85 of the Seward Highway, said Les Cockerham, a law enforcement agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The whale had grounded near that site all day Monday, and was seen offshore in deeper water on Tuesday evening, cruising up the Arm toward in a rising tide toward the same shallow waters where had originally been trapped.

"It was actually swimming with the tide, and that was the most energy that anybody had seen in the two days that it was there," said Tim Lebling, a rehabilitation technician with the Alaska SeaLife Center who monitored the whale on Tuesday. "It had enough water to swim out if it wanted to. Why (it didn't) is the big question."

As word of the whale's death spread Wednesday morning, federal officials were considering whether a necropsy would be performed by biologists or whether Alaska Natives from the Cook Inlet region could be granted permission to harvest the whale's fat, skin and meat, said Brad Smith, management biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Anchorage.

"If it's stable and near the shore, and they can get some ropes on it and get it cinched up, I would expect that they might get a necropsy going today," Smith said.

The whale lay for eight hours in a channel near Peterson Creek all day Monday, breathing regularly and moving its tail and flippers. When the tide struck, the whale tumbled over and over in a startling scene witnessed by dozens of people on shore and filmed by TV.
 

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Alyeska, just wondering out loud here, Does anybody know if these whales ever commit "suicide"? If it knew it was going to die, was something chasing it. Orkas, Giant Squid.
No, I have not lost it, just wondring.

Halfbreed
 

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I've seen Orcas come in chasing Beluga whales, but this gray was a little too big for Orcas to chase, I think.

There's been some speculation that whales have intentionally beached themselves when ill, though I don't know if there is any hard scientific evidence to support that. Belugas will beach themselves when being chased by Orcas though, we've seen that happen a couple of times, very near where this whale died.

It's strange why the whale didn't head out after the evening tide last night. It appeared to have swam further up the inlet toward land on the incoming tide, so there must have been some instinctive drive that beckoned it onward. Or, who knows, maybe it was "delirious" or confused and thought it was heading to deeper water.

A lighter note is the story from a couple of weeks ago about the guy who lives in Homer, Alaska. He is a lifetime Alaskan and really knew his stuff, I think he has lived around Homer his entire life and been commercially fishing, in one form or the other since his teens. At any rate, he has a cabin on the beach at Kalgin Island in Cook Inlet. About 2 weeks ago we had some huge plus and minus tides "clam tides". So, this guy wakes up in his cabin one morning (minus tide) to find a dead whale lodged against his cabin. I don't know how many of you have ever smelled a whale up close, but they do stink. He couldn't get his door open, so he had to climb out of his window in the back of the cabin. He said the whale was dead and really stunk, so he got a couple of ropes out and tied the whale's tail off on the stern of his boat, a set-net boat and waited for the afternoon flood tide. The tide came in and the whale began to float, so he motored out toward the middle of the inlet. He's going along, its a beautiful day, when all of a sudden, his boat starts getting thrashed around. Evidently, this "dead" whale revived itself and immediately began to sound. The whale headed to the bottom and was taking his boat with it. The stern was completely under water by the time he got back to the ropes and cut them. Things can get interesting in a hurry...
 

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I think that would qualify as one of those " oops I think I messed myself" moments.
I have seen it 'pondered' on National Geographic, that it was an instinctual thing for them to beach themselves, but no evidence to support it.

Halfbreed
 

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The day after...

Experts study gray whale's demise
TURNAGAIN ARM: Experts unsure what killed stranded animal.
By DOUG O'HARRA
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: May 15, 2003)

Harold Huntington Sr. helps harvest muktuk from a Pacific gray whale that was found dead on Wednesday in Turnagain Arm near Peterson Creek. Though a cause of death had not been established, biologists from the Alaska SeaLife Center were studying the whale's organs. (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)

Natives began harvesting a Pacific gray whale that was found dead on Wednesday in the Turnagain Arm near Peterson Creek.Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)

GIRDWOOD --The whale's death face nuzzled the silty rocks near the head of Turnagain Arm. Its mottled skin seemed shrunken, right eye scrunched shut, and the long curve of its mouth forever closed.

After spending two days fighting to escape swift tides and mud flats near Peterson Creek, a gray whale was found dead Wednesday morning in a shallow channel about six miles south of Girdwood, ending an ordeal that had attracted attention from across the country.

But as the afternoon tide ebbed, the whale's fate offered food and scientific knowledge.

While tourists and families sat on the rocks next to the Seward Highway and federal officers stood watch, an Alaska Native hunter from Anchorage straddled the whale's spine and carved out suitcase-sized squares of skin and fat near its tail. One helper carried the pink-fleshed hunks to shore, another hoisted them up the bank, and another laid them in the bed of a pickup truck.

"A lot of the meat is going to the elders," said Alby Totemoff, an Anchorage resident with Aleut heritage. He watched as Denty Owens, a hunter and ivory carver originally from Norton Sound, sharpened his knife and prepared to make another cut. "It's all still good and hasn't dried out."

Later, experts from the Alaska SeaLife Center planned to cut into the whale to examine internal organs for a clue to why it died.

The whale's struggle caught attention on Monday when it lay grounded all day in the same channel a mile closer to Girdwood. Dozens of people watched when the whale tumbled in the surging current of rising tide. It grounded again Tuesday, and by evening was seen cruising up the Arm toward the same treacherous shallows where it had originally been trapped.

"It was actually swimming with the tide, and that was the most energy that anybody had seen in the two days that it was there," said Tim Lebling, a SeaLife Center technician who monitored the whale that day. "It had enough water to swim out if it wanted to. Why (it didn't) is the big question."

As word of the whale's death spread Wednesday, a federal biologist and enforcement officer drove to the site. Federal officials in Washington, D.C., granted permission for local Alaska Natives to harvest the whale, said Brad Smith, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Anchorage. Owens and several friends reached the scene about 3 p.m.

Dozens of cars lined the highway, forcing traffic to a crawl. Among the visitors was Norm Aldred, of Oregon.

"I hate to see this happen," he said. "We watch them go up the coast in the spring."

Sitting on the bank with her brother, sister, cousin, mom and grandmother was 9-year-old Hailey Odom, a third-grader at O'Malley Elementary School.

"It's actually awesome to see a whale so close up," she said, hugging her knees, as the Native crew removed the muktuk. "I think it's pretty cool, but it's also sad."

No one knew why the whale died. It might have been sick or weakened by repeated strandings. But gray whales follow the coast, and it's possible the animal had simply gotten separated from other whales and ventured into the upper Inlet, said marine biologist Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who runs a gray whale census for the American Cetacean Society in Los Angeles.

Once listed as endangered, Pacific gray whales had rebounded to about 25,000 in the late 1990s before suffering a die-off, with hundreds stranding along the Pacific Coast and thousands dying, Schulman-Janiger said. The 2002 population estimate was about 17,500.

"We believe that this year the numbers should be up," she said. "We're not in a baby boom, but we are in the second year of a recovery."

Gray whales -- reaching 46 feet in length and up to 33 tons in weight -- are the only bottom-feeding whale, consuming invertebrates that they filter from muck through a mass of yellowish baleen.

Each spring, thousands migrate from Baja California to feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas on a 10,000-mile round trip. The journey takes them past the mouth of Resurrection Bay and Cook Inlet each April and early May.

At least twice over the past 10 years, gray whales have grounded in Turnagain Arm, where the tide rushes in and out, and where broad sandbars emerge and disappear. Belugas, killer whales and minke whales have also been stuck when the tide flushes out.

A half dozen other marine mammals have been reported beached so far this year elsewhere in Alaska, said Kaja Brix, NMFS's marine mammal stranding coordinator, including a dead killer whale that washed ashore on Latouche Island in Prince William Sound last month.

Not much can be done for a grounded cetacean as large as a gray whale -- especially in Turnagain Arm, Brix said.

"The mud flats are dangerous, and the tides are dangerous," she said. "We don't want people to put themselves into danger where they're going to get hurt by the environment or the animal."
 

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