Beached Humpback Near LAX May Offer Insight Into Whale's Life

"Wally," a female humpback whale washed up at Dockweiler State Beach | Photo: Jason Goldman

Update: We misgendered the whale. See end of story for details.

The Northern Pacific Ocean is home to at least three groups of humpback whales. The Eastern group, formally designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the "California-Oregon-Washington-Mexico stock," calls the waters off of Southern California their home for part of the year. They winter along the coastlines of Mexico and Central America, and are just now migrating north to feed along the coasts of Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and southern British Columbia.

Sadly, this group's population dropped by one when an adult male washed up Thursday afternoon on Dockweiler Beach near Playa Del Rey.

Officials attempted to tow the whale back out to sea that evening, but he floated right on back. That gave marine mammal researchers from the Natural History Museum of L.A. County, NOAA, and the Roundhouse Aquarium a chance to better study the animal before it could be towed back out to sea a second time.

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Most dead whales sink. Once the beast comes to rest on the sea floor, the proteins and lipids that comprise the bulk of its tissues offer up a temporary feast for deep-sea dwellers in a place generally devoid of nutrients. Entire communities swarm over the carcass, gorging on the cetacean bounty. Such occurrences are such an important part of the deep-sea ecosystem that there are species, like the bone-eating worm Osedax, that are only ever found on sunken whales.

But this whale took a different route, washing up instead onto the shore. The whale, which measured 15.1 meters from fluke to noise, is long enough to be considered an adult. Photos of his tail have already been matched to a whale nicknamed "Wally," thanks to an online citizen-science photo identification effort called Happy Whale. Wally was first spotted last summer in the waters between Dana Point and Newport Beach.

Under the intermittent roar of the planes taking off from LAX just down the road, a group of researchers led by Natural History Museum whale scientist Alisa Schulman-Janiger worked quickly in the surf to take measurements, photos, and tissue samples from the massive creature, still fairly fresh for a whale carcass. With any luck, those samples will offer biologists some insight into possible reasons for the whale's death, something that currently remains a mystery given the absence of visible injuries. Because of all the scientific data that will be gleaned from this single animal, "it's kind of like it hasn't died in vain," she says. "If a whale has to die, this is the best possible kind of scenario."

While removing the body from the beach poses a logistical challenge, beaching events such as this one offer up a rare, intimate glimpse into the life and death of one of the world's most mysterious and awe-inspiring animals.

Indeed, the rare opportunity to get close to a humpback is what led herpetologist Mark Herr to drive an hour to Playa Del Rey from his parents' home in Woodland Hills. A recent college graduate, Herr couldn't pass up the opportunity to see the leviathan first hand. "In spite of it being in the most inelegant posture," he says, possibly referring to the whale's jaw-droppingly large penis arching high into the air, "it's beautiful. They're really incredible animals."

Prior to the explosion of industrialized whaling, there were perhaps as many as 15,000 humpback whales in the Northern Pacific Ocean. But between 1905 and 1966, whalers decimated the population, bringing it down to just 1,200. Today, thanks to a variety of conservation efforts, the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA estimates that the Eastern population alone has rebounded to nearly 2,000 individuals, with some 18,000 to 20,000 in the entire Northern Pacific. While whales continue to face serious threats to their continued survival, Wally's death reminds us that there are still reasons to hope for the future of our planet.

Update: though officials had identified Wally as male, it turns out that what observers had assumed was the unfortunate whale's penis was actually an extruded section of vaginal wall. We regret the error. 

Banner photo by Jason Goldman

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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