"Washed up fin whale…" (3/9/09)

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On March 8, 2009, the carcass of a juvenile male fin whale measuring around 50 feet long and weighing somewhere around 30 tons washed up on a beach in Devil’s Elbow State Park, just below Heceta Head, Oregon.

The easily-accessible beach is just a few miles north of where a giant sperm whale corpse washed up in November, 1970. At that time, the Oregon Highway Division had responsibility for disposing of the whale, and their thinking then was evidently along the lines that a dead whale was probably a lot like a huge boulder blocking a road construction project. The decision to use dynamite to obliterate the rotting, stinking whale carcass is now stuff of legend.

Not surprisingly, the appearance of the fin whale resulted in frequent comparisons to the infamous event from 1970. Alas, Oregon beaches are now under the jurisdiction of the state’s Parks & Recreation Department where cooler heads prevailed. Officials decided to bury the whale on the beach.

The article below appeared in the Register-Guard on March 9, 2009.

This event was covered in the following blog posts:

Monday, March 9, 2009

Washed up fin whale forces beach closure

Officials consider how to remove the 40-foot animal; blowing it up not an option

BY WINSTON ROSS
The Register-Guard

FLORENCE — For all you history buffs out there, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is not — repeat, not — planning to dynamite the dead whale that washed up at Heceta Head on Sunday, mindful of the last harebrained scheme to blow up a beached leviathan in Florence in 1970 that resulted in huge chunks of blubber raining down upon dozens of onlookers.

But unless the tide comes in something fierce and drags this 40-foot carcass from its current resting place at a popular wayside of the Oregon Coast, something will have to be done with the cetacean.

“We normally bury animals like this on the coast,” said Chris Havel, a state parks spokesman. “But the sand there is so shallow that burying just isn’t an option. There are also archaeological sites we have to be sensitive to.”

Before that problem is solved, biologists must perform a necropsy to determine why the fin whale showed up so close to shore in the first place.

In Havel’s 15 years with the state, no fin whales have beached here, he said. That species of whale, second only to the blue whale in size and weight and among the fastest of the great whales, typically travels far off the continental shelf. It’s capable of bursts of speed of up to 23 mph, which is why it’s known as the “greyhound of the sea.”

When this particular whale showed up in Oregon’s waters on Friday, it could barely swim at all, an indication that it was chronically sick, said Jim Rice, coordinator of the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

U.S. Coast Guard officials noticed the bleeding mammal thrashing in the surf about two miles north of the North Jetty in Florence, and called Rice.

Rice got to Florence by mid-afternoon and spotted the creature rolling from side to side, pounded by waves and struggling to breathe. He guessed that blood emanating from the creature was from abrasions against the sand, because once it finally freed itself and swam northward, no more blood could be seen.

Rice then went up in a Coast Guard helicopter to view the whale from above.

“I could see it was underweight and having difficulty swimming. Whatever illness it may have had could have caused it to become disoriented,” Rice said. “It could not get out of the surf zone and was swimming parallel to the beach.”

Rice watched until dusk, waiting for the whale to show up again somewhere else. On Saturday, someone called in a dead whale on the beach south of Heceta Head, in a spot that’s barely accessible by a narrow “goat trail.” He went to check it out, but by then the tide had moved the carcass out to sea. Within a few minutes, another call came in that the whale was at Heceta, at Devil’s Elbow State Park.

Before long, so were hundreds of curious onlookers, Havel said.

“There were problems with people getting in and out of the parking lot and problems down on the beach with the sheer number of people,” he said.

On Sunday afternoon, parks officials closed the state park while they puzzle over how to get rid of the animal.

“One of the options is to tow it offshore, but that will take some coordination and logistics,” Havel said.

Asked if dynamite was one of the possibilities being considered, Havel burst out laughing, then answered, “No.”


© 2009 Register-Guard