A dead fin whale calf photographed in late May floating near Afognak Island is thought to be one of a group that mysteriously died around that time in Kodiak Archipelago waters. Photo by Zoya Saltonstall
At least 10 Fin whales are dead, having fallen victim to a mysterious affliction that seems to have killed them all near Kodiak Island. Kate Wynn, marine mammal specialist with the University of Alaska in Kodiak, said all the whales seemed to have met their fate at the same time and place.
“The evidence suggests that all of these whales that we've found died at about the same time, which is like the third week of May, around the 20th, in a short period of time in a fairly localized area, and that's about all we know right now. So it rules out a couple of things. And the fact that the carcass are intact, it rules out killer whale predation," Wynn said. "But other than that, we're at a loss.”
The area the whales were found were all south of Afognak Island, the second largest in the Kodiak Archipelago, just north of Kodiak Island.
“Some have been on the Shelikof side, some have been on the east side. But they're all pretty much south of say, Marmot Strait, straight across Afognak," she said. "And so it could be somewhere in there they were feeding together. But it seems to be there and everything is downstream of that.”
All the dead whales spotted have been adults, except one calf and a couple of sub-adults, with a mix of genders. It's the feeding that Wynn thinks may be the most likely culprit in their death.
“It suggests that there's something, a feeding group of fin whales ran into a toxin, or bio-toxin, human caused, induced, toxin, something that they were exposed to together in a short period of time," Wynn said. "So we're looking at water temperature, harmful algae bloom possibilities. But there's a lot of things that don't add up with that theory. Mainly that we don't find the prey species dead on the beach or other species that would be eating the same prey, dying.”
Fin whales, the second-largest species after Blue Whales, are filter-feeders, meaning they strain tiny sea life in its baleen to eat. They do not eat larger seafood such as salmon or halibut.
Wynn said that a colleague at the Marine Advisory Program in Kodiak is checking for evidence of paralytic shellfish poisoning.
“Right now Julie Matweyou, who's our local PSP and domoic acid expert is working with us," she said. "We're taking water samples and trying to keep track of what's going on with the phytoplankton all the way up through the food web to see if we see another sign of this happening.”
At least four of the whales have beached, Wynn said, but she doesn't think bears already feeding on them are in danger.
She added that the public's help has been especially helpful in keeping track of all the fatalities.
“They're coming in from pilots, from enforcement people, Coast Guard ship people, the ferry pilots have turned in reports and photos, hikers, yachtsmen," Wynn said. "All sorts of people are turning in photos with latitude and longitude and dates, and so we've been able to track some of these carcasses and not double count the whales that way. So it's been incredibly helpful.”
Blubber and muscle samples, and an eyeball, recovered from one whale has been sent for laboratory examination, and Wynn says results might be available next week.