A surreal find on a Haida Gwaii beach

Photo: Gregory Smith
Photo: Gregory Smith
A Humpback whale breaches in west coast waters. Photo: Gregory Smith

By Graham Richard —

A keen of murrelets, the slosh of breaking waves and the hush of hemlock branches are sounds of Haida Gwaii. To children that live here those sounds are as recognizable as their mother’s voice.

The ocean rings with whale songs and the Humpback whale’s is particularly complex song. Some songs last 20 minutes and are sometimes repeated for more than 24 hours straight. Even though these graceful giants are spread out across the Pacific Ocean, they all sing the same song, changing it ever so slightly each year.

In the same way, the seven-to-ten minute fin whale songs can carry underwater for hundreds of miles, and be repeated for many days. From one metre away, Fin whale songs reach 186 decibels, 10% louder than a 12-guage-shotgun blast and loud enough to kill human hearing tissue.

This August 6, schoolteacher Meagan Cordeiro and engineer Jeremy Lutz were hiking the east beach trail when they found one of these 36 tonne singers washed ashore.

“It felt weird. Walking up the beach, you see lots of logs in the distance, and you think it might be a beached whale. As we came closer to this one, we started to see the fin, and it became clear,” said Jeremy Lutz. “It felt surreal to find such a huge mammal dead.”

On the Aug 11, Council of the Haida Nation marine biologist Aggie Cangardel performed a necropsy on the beached humpback with UBC veterinary pathologist Dr Stephen Raverty and Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesperson Paul Cottrell.

The whale was a very young female, under two years old, and measuring 7.52 metres in length. While the cause of death is not obvious, for now, the team is attributing its death to starvation because the stomach and intestines were empty. The team’s conclusion may change upon further analysis.

This casualty is just one in a rash of cetacean deaths this summer. Twenty-three large whales including humpback and fin whales washed ashore in the western Gulf of Alaska and some of the whales were discovered among walrus and seabird carcasses. Along the central coast, four humpbacks have been found dead. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, there are at least two known casualties.

While the causes of these deaths are unconfirmed for now it is suspected that toxins from algal blooms may be poisoning the sea creatures. This year the North Pacific Ocean is three degrees warmer than average, and this June a bloom of neurotoxin-producing diatoms stretched from Washington State to California. An unusually strong El Niño current may worsen these effects in coming years.

Today, the consequences of rising ocean temperatures, increasing ocean acidity, pollution, and over-fishing are growing more visible. The effects of climate change and human behaviour include the demise of coral reefs, shellfish, starfish, and charismatic mega fauna like whales. Scientists predict that without a significant policy change in how we treat the environment we are on the way to a global mass-extinction event that will eliminate 20-50% of all species by 2100.

Anyone spotting a dead whale is asked to call the Council of the Haida Nation at 250.626.3302 or 250.559.4468.

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