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I receive hundreds of emails every day, but one that I received last week was different. A young grey whale had washed up on Wickanninish Beach, and Pete Clarkson, the supervisor of the Visitor Safety Program at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, was reaching out to let Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre staff know and invite us along for the necropsy.

Fortunately, a dead marine mammal on shore is not a frequent occurrence, but when it does happen coastal community members such as Parks Canada, Fisheries and Ocean Canada (DFO), the Royal British Columbia Museum, the Ucluelet aquarium and other groups come together to investigate and remove the animal. To help support the effort I, along with Tessa Danelesko, the coordinator of our B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, jumped in the Vancouver Aquarium Prius and headed to Vancouver Island to participate in the necropsy. We wanted to learn more about what had happened to the whale.

Vancouver Aquarium grey whale necropsy

A team assembles to perform a necropsy of this dead grey whale in Tofino.

This was the first dead whale I had ever seen and nothing could prepare me for the experience. I’m used to seeing land mammals so I was surprised at the enormity of this young grey whale. This amazing animal, lying on the beach in front of me, sadly died far too early in its life. Additionally, I was taken aback by the scale of the operation including the dozens of staff and volunteers involved. In this case, we needed the resources since the Royal British Columbia Museum was interested in adding the skeleton to its collection. This meant a labour-intensive process where we needed to strip the blubber and muscles from the skeleton carefully, in order to have a specimen they could put back together.

Grey whale necropsy

Grey whales are filter feeders. This baleen, or whalebone, acts like a sieve, to capture small sea animals, taken in along with sand, water and other material.

My initial role on the team was to assist with flensing by using large knives to remove the skin and blubber. This way, Fisheries and Ocean Canada staff could access the body cavity to inspect the organs and take samples to help determine cause of death. Once this was completed, we inspected the digestive tract by running our hands along the intestines to see if there were any foreign bodies or blockages. Based on the feeding habits of grey whales, and my experience with the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, presented by Loblaw Companies Limited, I wondered if we would find any plastics. Fortunately, we did not.

Once we had removed the blubber and organs, we were faced with the task of separating the skeleton into smaller pieces. These pieces will be buried for up to two years to let the decomposition processes remove the bulk of the remaining soft tissue. Then, the bones will be collected and prepared by experts under the supervision of the Royal British Columbia Museum.

Grey whale necropsy, Vancouver Aquarium

Collecting tissue samples is an important part of any necropsy. Here, researchers collect skin and blubber samples, which can provide genetic and contaminant-related information.

At this time we do not know the cause of death for this young grey whale, but will share any new information as it comes available. For me, this serves as an important reminder of the amazing animals living in our coastal waters and how we need to reflect on our behaviours to ensure we are not having a negative impact on them. This includes being conscious of the products we use at home, how we dispose of them and how we behave in boats on the water.

Grey Whale Necropsy, Vancouver Aquarium

Tessa and Dolf, take a break from the whale necropsy to grab a quick photo.

If you come across a dead, distressed, or injured marine mammal call the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network at 1.800.465.4336. This number is monitored around the clock, by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who can co-ordinate with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre and send trained staff to respond to an incident if deemed necessary. Your reports can help researchers learn more about why marine mammals wash ashore, like in the mysterious case of the young grey whale.

Guest post by Dolf DeJong, vice president, conservation and education at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.

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