Hawaii & Alaska
A team of marine mammal experts perform a necropsy on a male sperm whale. Credit: Johanna Vollenweider/NOAA.

Alaska NOAA Team Examines Dead Endangered Sperm Whale

First time NOAA Fisheries has had a report of a dead sperm whale in Alaska's Inside Passage

It was a rare find: a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Alaska’s famed Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska. Sperm whales, which are endangered, usually hang out in deeper, offshore waters. This one—a 48-foot long male—was found beached on the east side of Lynn Canal, north of Berners Bay near Juneau.

This is the first time NOAA Fisheries has had a report of a dead sperm whale in the Inside Passage. Its discovery provided a unique opportunity for marine mammal experts from NOAA Fisheries, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Sitka Stranding Network, and University of Alaska to perform a necropsy (or animal autopsy).

“This is an exceptional opportunity for a marine mammal biologist,” said Kate Savage, NOAA Fisheries lead veterinarian on the necropsy. “There are a lot of unknowns around sperm whale biology and life history in Alaskan waters, so we could learn a lot from this stranding.”

On March 20 a team led by Savage collected the whale’s teeth to determine age, blubber to check for contaminants, and a variety of tissue samples to examine DNA and other health indicators.

Only two other sperm whales have been necropsied in Alaska since 1990. The first was a partial necropsy of a whale that stranded in Resurrection Bay in 2006, the second was a calf that stranded near Homer in 2009.

Known Individual

Researchers with the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project (SEASWAP) are working to determine if the dead sperm whale is one of three known individuals to frequent Chatham Strait and Lynn Canal, based on tagging data collected in the past five years.

“We have photos of only three individual sperm whales which have been sighted in Chatham and Lynn Canal, and we would love to know if it is one of those individuals,” said necropsy team member Lauren Wild, a doctoral student with the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Science who works with SEASWAP.

SEASWAP is a unique collaboration between commercial fishermen, scientists, and fisheriesmanagers. They use acoustics, tagging, tissue sampling, and photo-identification to learn more about sperm whales in Southeast Alaska. Their ultimate goal is to test deterrents and strategies to minimize interactions between the whales and fishermen.

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