CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT — Two more gray whales came ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula last week, one near The Breakers in Long Beach and the other in Cape Disappointment State Park.
Along with one that washed onto a tidal flat near Everett last week, the two here brought the Washington state total to 13 for 2019. Michael Milstein with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 45 dead grays have been counted so far this year on beaches from California to Washington, compared to 25 in all of 2018.
“This is looking like it is going to be a big year for gray whale strandings,” said Jessie Huggins, stranding coordinator for the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective recently told Tom Banse of the Northwest News Network.
Since February, Huggins has participated in necropsies of malnourished, mostly adult, gray whales on Whidbey Island and the Key Peninsula to Ocean Shores and the Long Beach Peninsula.
“We’re seeing very thin whales with little to no food in their stomachs,” Huggins said. “This is kind of leading us to believe that this is an issue of nutritional stress with a few normal-type strandings mixed in.”
Huggins said these whales probably didn’t get fat enough on their summer feeding grounds in Alaskan waters last year.
Responders in rain gear and elbow-high rubber gloves cut into the massive carcasses to examine the animals’ fat reserves and internal organs. Multiple whales exhibited dry fibrous blubber. The responders noted ribcages and vertebra sticking out, measured healed scars and took tissue samples for later analysis for contaminants.
Despite the unusual number of dead whales found, NOAA’s Milstein said the overall population of gray whales is fine, “probably as big as it’s ever been” in modern times.
Eastern Pacific gray whales were taken off the endangered species list in 1994. The population is now estimated at 27,000, which may be around the carrying capacity of their ocean territory.
“They’ve been coming back strong,” Milstein said.
Whales naturally die
Whales naturally die during their migrations along this coast. In the absence of whaling in half a century, the mature West Coast gray whale population has recovered, and they experience mortality like that of other sea creatures.
Before European-American settlement, divvying up dead whales was a common enough occurrence to justify semi-formal agreements between and within local tribes. Charles Cultee, whose conversations with Franz Boas of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology in 1890 preserved most of what is known about Chinook, Clatsop and Wahkiakum ancient traditions, had this to say about whaling in the time of his ancestors:
“When the people of Sealand find a whale they tell a youth to go to the town and to inform the people. A person who has to observe taboos is asked to go up and down [in his canoe] below the whale. … Those who found the whale do not cut it; they wait for the chief. All the people reach the whale. Then the chief takes a stick and measures the whale from the head to the tail. … A cut two spans and one hand width large is exchanged for one blanket, or for a string of dentalia five shells longer than a fathom. When a cut two spans large is sold it is exchanged for a ground-hog blanket.
“When travelers from Chehalis find a whale it is taken back from them. If it is found at Oysterville, it belongs to the people of Sealand; when it is found north of Oysterville, it belongs to the Willapa. When the people of Sealand find a whale north of Oysterville, it is claimed by the Willapa. If the Willapa find one south of Oysterville, it is claimed by the people of Sealand.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Although there was at one time a white settlement called Sealand just north of Nahcotta, Cultee may have been referring to an unrelated Chinook village.