There I stood at the edge of the dry dock, about to experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but filled with extreme sadness over the unusual circumstances. I was part of the team led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) about to perform a necropsy — an animal autopsy — to determine how a fin whale, recently found in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, died.
On Sunday, May 10, a fin whale came into the harbour draped across the bow of a cruise ship. Upon hearing the news I was devastated; I’ve seen fin whales off our coast. They are fast, they are huge and they are magnificent. Fin whales are the second largest species of whale in the world and in B.C. can grow to nearly 22 metres long and weigh around 40 to 50 tonnes. They can sustain swimming speeds of close to 40 kilometres an hour and are often referred to as the “greyhounds of the sea.” Fin whales are listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act in Canada, making the news of this whale’s death that much more upsetting. Ship strikes are one of the greatest threats faced by baleen whales and fin whales are among the most common species involved in collisions. However, we still don’t know whether or not this whale was alive when struck, or if it had already died before colliding with the cruise ship.
Back on the dry dock the crew had assembled. DFO lead a team of biologists from the Animal Health Centre, the University of British Columbia and six of us from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre through the afternoon-long process of performing a necropsy on this fin whale. The goal of the day was to collect enough samples to be taken back to the lab and analyzed to provide information about how and when the whale died.
One cannot express in pictures or words the smell associated with a whale necropsy. Yes, lots of dead animals smell, but there is a special aroma associated with dead whales that is like nothing else. On the grand scheme of whale smells, this time wasn’t so bad, however you still wouldn’t have wanted to be within a square block of me that evening. Initial inspection revealed this fin whale was a young adult male. We started by taking lots of measurements and moved to collecting various tissue samples that pathologists will use to look at all aspects of this whale’s health and ultimately determine why he died. These analyses will take a few weeks to complete and are an important part of the full investigation DFO is conducting to piece together what happened to this whale.
In the wake of this tragedy, we need to look for opportunities and solutions. It’s rare for scientists to get the opportunity to investigate a large whale in such great detail. The samples collected will help numerous research projects. Photos and pieces of baleen will inspire hundreds, if not thousands, through education and outreach. Veterinarians in various stages of their training were able to work alongside and learn from leading experts in marine mammal pathology. Still, we mourn the loss of one of these magnificent whales, and are reminded that for many marine species, threats like ship strikes are ever-present.
As marine vessel traffic continues to increase, events like this highlight the need for improved and well-designed marine monitoring and communications. The Vancouver Aquarium recognizes there are gaps in these areas, and recently established the Coastal Ocean Research Institute to bring groups together to establish a coordinated monitoring approach. As one of its first activities, the Research Institute is putting finishing touches on an app that will expand its B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network and we hope this technology will enable several ports in B.C to alert ships’ captains that cetaceans may be present. The Research Institute is also working with ports and other industry partners to design hydro-acoustic monitoring programs that can detect whale sounds if they are vocalizing. To date, the groups we have met with have all been very receptive to addressing this issue. Even with all of these added measures, as long as noisy, fast-moving ships are transiting whale habitat, these threats will continue to exist.
As I walked away from the dry dock — smelling a little more foul than when I arrived — I was flooded with mixed emotions. I was fascinated after having the learning opportunity of a lifetime. I felt sad over the death of this whale and the potential impact his death could symbolize for his threatened population. Yet most of all I was hopeful — hopeful that all of the work we are doing in the Research Institute to develop these threat mitigation measures will prevent more whales from ending up on that dry dock.
Blog post by Carla Crossman, marine mammal research biologist at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.