SJC MMSN lead necropsy on deceased Minke whale.
October 7, 2022 - Friday Harbor, Wash. -- Researchers report that the Minke whale that was discovered dead and floating two days ago most likely died from being struck by a ship. The floating whale, first reported to The Whale Museum’s Hotline by a commercial vessel, was located by San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network Coordinator Jessica Farrer and later towed to a private beach on a nearby island by the US Coast Guard. Today, under authorization of NOAA, scientists and veterinarians from The Whale Museum’s SJC Marine Mammal Stranding Network (SJCMMSN), Cascadia Research Collective, World Vets, and the SeaDoc Society performed a complete necropsy. While microscopic examination of tissues and multiple ancillary tests are still pending, initial exam suggests the animal was hit by a large ship. Severe bruising was present in almost a straight line on the left side of the body that extended almost the entire length of the animal from just behind the head to the end of the abdomen. The 5th rib was broken in half, part of one of the vertebrae was broken, and there was extensive bleeding in the lungs. Examination of the ovaries showed that this 24’ female was of breeding age. While not as well-known as killer whales, many minke whales that frequent the San Juan Islands are known individuals. Initial attempts to photo-identify this animal were not successful, but minke whale researchers are still examining images.
Jessica Farrer, SJC MMSN Coordinator for the Whale Museum, said, “While it is always sad to find a dead whale, we were pleased that we could determine the cause of death. It’s work like this that will provide the data that will one day enable us to modify shipping lanes or vessel speeds to reduce this type of tragedy.” Help all whales and other marine mammals by reporting any sightings as soon as you can.
The San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network (SJCMMSN) is a program of the Whale Museum and works under the auspices of the National Marine Fisheries Service (a division of NOAA). Our Stranding Agreement through NMFS permits staff and volunteers to investigate, collect data, and handle live and dead marine mammals within San Juan County. The Whale Museum has operated the Stranding Network since 1981. The SeaDoc Society began collaborating with the museum in 2002, and both organizations now help to run the network.
The Stranding Network works to research the marine mammals of the Salish Sea and to reduce human impact on marine mammals. We receive about 200 calls a year from the public about many species of marine mammals, including harbor seals, northern elephant seals, Stellar sea lions, California sea lions, harbor porpoises, Dall’s porpoises, and Pacific white-sided dolphins. Harbor seal pups are the most frequent animal called in. Staff and volunteers drive or boat to the location of the reported stranding, gather information on the animal, and make sure that people stay the required 100 yards away. If the animal is recently deceased, we will collect it for a necropsy (animal autopsy).
To Report a Stranding for San Juan County call 1-800-562-8832 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The hotline is a voicemail system that is checked frequently throughout the day. Please be sure to leave your name and phone number so we can get back to you. Information we love to know: the exact location of the animal, its species, approximate size, when you saw it, and whether it is dead or injured.
When is a marine mammal stranded? Legally, a marine mammal is stranded when it is on shore and cannot return to the water on its own. Practically this means:
Porpoises, dolphins, and whales should never be on the shore. If you see one on a beach, it is stranded. Please call it in.
Seals and sea lions frequently come on shore to rest and sleep. Please try to keep your distance (at least 100 yards). If the animal is dead or injured, or if it is in a busy public location, please call it in.
Do you want calls about dead marine mammals? Yes! We can learn a lot about an animal from its body, and we may collect it in order to conduct a necropsy (animal autopsy).
What if I see a harbor seal with a tag on its head? This seal is part of our pup tagging project, which aims to track the movement and survival of young seals. Please call in and tell us the tag number, and when and where you saw the animal.
What about strandings outside of San Juan County? Our response area is limited to San Juan County. If you have a stranding to report outside the county, or you are not sure which county you are in, call the NOAA hotline (1-866-767-6114) and you will be directed to the appropriate network.
All marine mammals are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which Congress passed in 1972 in order to “maintain the health and stability of the marine ecosystem.” The act acknowledges the vulnerability of marine mammals to human disturbance and makes it illegal to hunt, harass, capture, or kill any marine mammal. In addition, some marine mammals are covered by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. For more information, see these NOAA fact sheets on the MMPA and ESA.
According to these laws, all humans should stay at least 100 yards away from seals and sea lions. This includes how close dogs and boats should approach. Keep pets on a leash. Animals can become stressed and disrupted with the approach of humans. Plus, they have large teeth and can bite! If the animal starts to stare at you, fidget, or flee, you are too close.
It is also illegal to feed marine mammals. It can reduce their natural wariness of humans, increasing their risk of being injured by boats or entangled in fishing gear. To find out more about how feeding harms them, see this NOAA factsheet.
Harbor seals are particularly vulnerable to human disturbances during the pupping season (June-September in the San Juan Islands). Mother seals are sometimes separated from their pups by disturbances, and they will not return if people or dogs are nearby. Since the pups depend on milk for their first month, prolonged separations can be fatal. In addition, groups of harbor seals will sometimes “flush” into the water when disturbed by humans. Pups can be crushed or separated from their mother in the process. Please don’t be the cause of a separation: Keep your distance.
How many pups survive to adulthood? Likely less than half that are born. The Salish Sea has a healthy and stable harbor seal population, as high as the environment can naturally sustain. This means that each year many pups will not make it. The SJCMMSN follows a “let nature take its course” philosophy and will usually only consider rehabilitating a pup if it has been harmed by human interaction. Please help us respect nature’s role in mortality.
I can approach a pup very closely. Is something wrong with it? No. Young pups often have not developed a protective wariness (escape response) and will regard humans with curiosity or indifference. This does not mean it is sick or injured. However, adult seals are wary of humans and its mother will not return if people or dogs are close by. Please stay away.
Why are some harbor seal pups grey and spotted, while others are white and fluffy? The fluffy white (or yellow/grey) coat is called a lanugo coat, and is typically shed in utero before the pup is born. A pup with a lanugo coat has been born prematurely. These premature pups are particularly vulnerable and have only about a 10% survival rate. Full term pups appear gray to black with short fur and spots, similar to adults. For more information, see this NOAA factsheet on lanugo pups.
Read the recently published paper: Causes of Mortality in a Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) Population at Equilibrium. Available here.
The SJCMMSN has two primary goals: to research the marine mammals of the Salish Sea and to reduce human impact on marine mammals. We work towards these goals in a number of ways:
SJCMMSN would not be possible without the dedication of our volunteers. There are over ninety people on eight islands who volunteer their time to help us investigate strandings, educate the public, and conduct necropsies. Most of our volunteers are “on-call.” When we have a stranding in their area, we may contact them to see if they are available to investigate or assist.
If you are interested in volunteering, please call the hotline or email email@example.com. Although our annual training sessions are typically in early June, we welcome people at any time of the year. We are especially looking for volunteers from Shaw, Waldron, and any other smaller island in San Juan County.
Because the Stranding Network is a program of the Whale Museum, its finances are administered through the museum. You can help support the work of the Stranding Network by making a donation to SJCMMSN on our website, Adopting an Orca, or becoming a Museum Member.
General question or concern: email firstname.lastname@example.org