In just the last month, nine fin whale carcasses have been discovered in Alaska, and no one knows what is killing them. The endangered fin whales’ numbers hover in the tens of thousands, so any die off is significant, but since May of this year, nine dead fin whales have been discovered in the water between Kodiak and Unimak Pass, and there is no obvious cause. Kate Wynne, a marine mammal specialist at the University of Alaska said that the event seems to have occurred around Memorial Day weekend and is surprising since it’s rare to spot more than one fin whale carcass every couple of years.
Reports have come to Wynne from NOAA, boaters, fishermen and others who have spotted the dead whales. What’s strange, Wynne notes, is that the deaths are all of one species — with the exception of one dead humpback whale found in a different location. Part of the mystery is why is it just fin whales and not their prey, Wynne said. Why are there not other animals in that local system also dying? Why, does it seem, that the fin whale is singled out?
Fin whales normally reach between 65 and 80 feet in length and weigh around 80 tons. They are baleen feeders and strain their food through baleen plates. Wynne believes, because fin whales eat in groups, that it’s possible that they all consumed something toxic within the same time frame.
Two of the carcasses have come ashore and Wynne and another specialist have taken samples for testing. Wynne is also working with NOAA on a community outreach to make sure any dead birds or fish — particularly in that area — are reported.
According to the Alaska Dispatch News, “the “go-to answer” to questions about the deaths is a harmful algal bloom,” said Bree Witteveen, a UAF Sea Grant marine mammal specialist working with Wynne on the investigation. “It’s definitely a suspect,” she said in a telephone interview with ADN. However getting a cause of death for the marine mammals could be difficult, “even if we have evidence of a harmful algal bloom,” she said.