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Rare whale found dead on B.C.'s coast under investigation

Fin whales are the second-largest mammal in the world. Their population in the Northern Pacific is currently listed under Canada's Species at Risk Act as threatened.

The circumstances surrounding the death of a young male fin whale found in an intertidal zone near Pender Harbour (kalpilin) are being investigated, after its discovery on March 17.

On Sunday, March 20, a team of more than a dozen people from the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) Marine Mammal Response Team and shíshálh Nation was able to use the nearby landowners’ rowboat to paddle to the isolated location and examine the whale’s body during low tide. First, members of shíshálh Nation performed a ceremony for the whale. 

Nearby landowners reported finding the animal to the 24/7 marine mammal incident reporting hotline (1-800-465-4336) on March 17. He was measured to be more than 13 metres long (43 feet, nine inches). While the lifespan of fin whales may be as long as 100 years, this whale is estimated to be younger than two years old. He likely died between three and five days before the reported sighting.

“This is a very young animal, a male. How he ended up where he did is a bit of a mystery,” Paul Cottrell, the marine mammal coordinator for the Pacific region of DFO, told Coast Reporter. 

The necropsy took about four hours to collect the samples, pictures and the full morphometrics of the animal that will be used to pinpoint the cause of death. The resource management director for shíshálh Nation, Sid Quinn, offered the Nation’s assistance to aid DFO in the process. They found evidence on the dorsal-ventral side, just behind the pectoral fin, which is “concerning and consistent with blunt force trauma and possible vessel strikes,” Cottrell said. The whale had a full stomach of krill, which suggests he was healthy and points towards a possible acute cause of death. They will also examine whether domoic acid (a neurotoxin) is present and may have contributed to behavioural changes in the animal.

A gross diagnostic report by Dr. Stephen Raverty, the veterinarian pathologist for marine mammal necropsies, is expected to be ready in a few weeks, Cottrell said. The full results will take several more months, as tissue samples are being sent to international experts. Because the finding was reported quickly and the water is cool this time of year, the carcass is relatively fresh, increasing the likelihood of discovering the cause of death. Researchers will be able to look for contaminants, pathogens and any underlying diseases the whale may have had. 

A rare sighting

Fin whales are the second-largest mammal in the world, and the fin whale population in the Northern Pacific is currently listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act as threatened. While the fin whale population is recovering from industrial whaling that ended in the 1970s, their large size throughout their lifespan makes them susceptible to a number of threats, particularly vessel strikes and getting tangled in fishing gear. Noise and habitat degradation may also affect fin whales, according to a 2019 report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. 

“They're just such big animals – Greyhounds of the sea – and they seem to just think they're the biggest thing around, so there's no danger,” Cottrell said. “That's understandable 300 or 400 years ago but, unfortunately, now that's not a great trait when we have all these vessels in the water.”

Fin whales are more common offshore, on the continental shelf, and it’s rare to see one in the Salish Sea or the Georgia Strait. The last such sighting of a young fin whale was in Puget Sound in January. The DNA of the whale found on the Sunshine Coast will be submitted to a database and his full body and any unusual marks were photographed to try to identify him. 

Between 2009 and 2015, four fin whales came in on the bows of cruise ships, Cottrell said. There’s also been an unusual rise in grey whale mortalities in the Pacific.

Honouring the whale

This whale was found in the territory and birthplace, the swiya, of shíshálh Nation. In shíshálh culture, whales are considered family, and have great strength and spiritual power. In a press release, the Nation thanked the people who reported finding the whale, and the local fisheries and conservation officers, Matt Conley and Leyland Klassen, for their efforts.

“It is essential that this family member be treated with the utmost respect and dignity. Losing such a rare, beautiful, and majestic marine mammal in our swiya is a significant tragedy,” hiwus (Chief) Warren Paull said in the release. 

“Throughout this process the shíshálh Nation will care for the spiritual journey of this important family member,” the release said. 

The ceremony “was very touching,” Cottrell said. “It’s a very sad, sad situation, but hopefully we’ll get some useful information in the end through the necropsy.” 

Cottrell notes it is illegal for anyone to possess part of a fin whale, because of its threatened status, except for First Nations social and ceremonial purposes, and for research. The public is asked to stay away from the site of this whale. 

The Nation will discuss with DFO to determine how the whale’s remains will be cared for after the necropsy. 

“Like deja vu”

This is not the first whale necropsy shíshálh Nation and DFO have worked on together.

In 2016, after an 18-year-old male member of the J-pod of southern resident killer whales was found dead from a vessel strike, shíshálh Nation helped with the recovery and initial necropsy, before taking custody of J34 and naming him Kwentens ?e te sinkwu [Guardian of the Sea]. His preserved skeleton is on display in the tems swiya Museum as part of a permanent stalashen (Killer Whale) exhibit.

“We are very interested in determining the cause of death, whether it was from natural causes or a vessel strike,” the Nation’s press release said. “These deaths accentuate the importance of monitoring large vessel movement and decreasing underwater noise impacts on marine mammals.”

How to help

Cottrell recommends the public read up on species at risk and understand the threats humans can pose.

Anyone who spots marine life that appears to be in distress or dead should call the 24/7 marine mammal incident reporting hotline at 1-800-465-4336 as soon as possible. Calls will be prioritized based on the Species at Risk Act designation.

“Folks are really our eyes and ears. If they’re on the water and they see something that doesn’t look right… phone us immediately,” Cottrell said.