Though unable to move the blue whale, scientists and students are leaping at the research opportunity, scrambling down rock faces to take tissue samples and eventually one of the 11-foot-long (3.5-meter-long) flippers.
Though relatively infrequent off California until recent years, ship collisions are "the number one human threat to blue whales," according to marine biologist Joe Cordaro of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
This week's collision, he said, marks the second time this year that a ship off California has fatally wounded a blue whale.
The world's largest animals, blue whales can grow to about a hundred feet (30 meters) long—about the length of a space shuttle. Listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the whales are said to face a very high risk of extinction in the wild, largely due to heavy hunting prior to a 1966 ban.
(Related: "Baby Blue Whale Caught on Film Underwater.")
A Shudder and, Later, a Beached Blue Whale
On Monday, Cordaro received a report from a ship mapping the seafloor for the fisheries service. The researchers had "felt a shudder underneath the ship" about 7 miles (11 kilometers) from shore.
Soon after, a whale surfaced, bleeding profusely, Cordaro said. Several hours later, the beached blue whale was spotted near the city of Fort Bragg.
Given the evidence—timing, location, a fresh propeller wound—Cordaro said, "I don't think there's any doubt" that the mapping ship is the culprit.
Blue Whale Tragedy Turned Scientific Windfall
"I'm as sorry as anybody that that animal perished," said Humboldt State University mammologist Thor Holmes (pictured above atop the whale). But to find "a fresh, female blue whale in a place that's accessible—that is amazing."
On Tuesday, Holmes and two students drove several hours to study the blue whale.
After he'd scrambled down the "scary" rock faces, he told the eager students to stay put for their own safety. "Man, I knew from the looks on their faces there was an insurrection brewing," he said. The others eventually found another, wetter way around.
On the shore, the researchers took blubber samples, which Holmes expects will shed light on the whale's pre-collision health.
"Just the fact that the whale has a good, thick blubber layer," he said, "shows it was a really, really healthy animal."
Blue Whale to Be Left in Place
The blue whale will be left on the Fort Bragg beach, the National Marine Fisheries Service's Cordaro said. Given the cove's inaccessibility to vehicles, he added, "That whale ain't going anywhere."
But researchers are planning more tests, including an amputation of one of the blue whale's flippers this week—a potential windfall for an ongoing Humboldt State study comparing the limbs of cetaceans, which include whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
The university is also sending more students to examine the rare specimen, and a dermatologist at Humboldt is hoping to secure hair follicles for study.
For Holmes, the specimen holds great scientific promise, but also serves as a painful reminder of humanity's role in the blue whale's rarity.
"The presence of that animal on the beach," he said, "is another sign that we're malefactors on this planet."
March 4, 2009—A baby blue whale (shown with photographer) filmed off Costa Rica may be the first to have been photographed underwater and adds to evidence that a blue whale hot spot in the Pacific Ocean is a birthing ground for the endangered species.
During a January 2008 expedition to the "Dome"—a warm-water region that draws blue whales from hundreds of miles away—the researchers had begun to lose hope of finding a calf. Then two telltale spouts began erupting at the sea surface.
"Oh, tell me that one of them is a small blow, please," Bruce Mate, of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, says in the documentary.
One of the spouts did turn out to be that of a calf, which approached the research boat—surprising the scientists, given blue whale mothers' protective reputations.
A photographer and videographer dived in and soon had the visual evidence needed to identify the whale as a baby blue.
Video-Baby Blue Whale:
Averaging 25 feet (7.6 meters) long at birth, blue whale babies nurse for about seven months until they double in size. Gaining about 200 pounds (90 kilograms) a day, they are the biggest babies ever known to have roamed the Earth.
Blue whales were heavily hunted until a worldwide ban in 1966. Today they are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning they face a very high risk of extinction in the wild.
By comparing new and old photos of blue whale spot patterns—which can be as distinct, in their way, as human fingerprints—expedition member John Calambokidis later identified the Dome mother as a summer resident of California's Channel Islands. The researchers speculate that mother and baby returned to the islands, rich with krill but fraught with danger from increasing shipping traffic.
The destinations of other whales at the Dome remain a mystery—unfortunately for conservationists looking to safeguard blue whale migration routes.
On a previous trip, researchers had found that more than 75 percent of the whales at the Dome were from the U.S. West Coast. But the recent expedition found only 25 percent.
"It caught us by surprise," Calambokidis told National Geographic News. A whale expert from the Cascadia Research Collective in Washington State, Calambokidis has received funding from National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
The Dome's importance to the struggling species, though, is no mystery.
"We're quite confident now that this is one of the very, very important areas for blue whales in the entire world," Mate said.
Corrected March 5, 2009: The original version of this story stated that experts believe the calf in the video above may be the first live newborn blue whale caught on camera. Researchers cast doubt on that claim, and the story has been amended accordingly.
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