Blue Whales & Great White Sharks

(Blue whales and great white sharks were close neighbors of mine, and I just think they're all kinds of interesting. So here you go. There's also a cool graphic at the bottom.)

Blue whale lost to great whites
Hopes to study corpse from Farallones fade with each shark bite

Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer, Friday, 19 July 2002

The humongous corpse of an endangered blue whale found floating near the Farallon Islands caused an oceanic tug-of-war between eager scientists and hungry great white sharks.

The sharks won.

Researchers hoping for an opportunity to study the rare and mysterious leviathan are now being forced to wait for the blubbery carcass to wash ashore -- and praying that it will -- while the sharks feed on their would-be science project.

A fishing boat captain first saw the giant Wednesday afternoon looking like a small island in the open ocean about 4 miles north of Point Bonita, near a pod of about a dozen blue whales, including a mother and calf.

Within hours, marine experts were attempting to lasso its tail so they could drag it into shore -- but they were soon confronted by aggressive, feeding sharks, who had ripped out part of the whale's intestines and were circling for more.

"One was actively feeding and biting and jumping," said Frances Gulland, the director of veterinary science for the Marine Mammal Center, who had been poised to get in the water to put the rope around the animal's submerged tail. "Even if he wasn't intentionally trying to eat me, all he had to do is mouth me, and that would be it. I decided it was too risky to go in the water with a white shark."

The scientists are thirsting for a chance to study the largest animal ever to live on Earth. The great whale is listed as an endangered species, and opportunities to take tissue and blood samples to perform scientifically valuable necropsies are few and far between.

"The siting of a dead blue whale off the coast is definitely something of interest because it doesn't happen that often," said Doreen Moser, assistant director of education for the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin headlands. "They usually sink before we get a chance to see them."

Ravenous sharks have been known to speed up the sinking by puncturing the whale's bloated body and letting the accumulating gases out, according to experts. Peter Pyle, a marine biologist for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory who has studied great whites for more than 20 years, said the predators commonly feed on dead whales.

"I'm not sure I'd call it a delicacy as much as it is a jackpot, a sudden bonanza of food," said Pyle, who recounted how 27 great whites had recently been seen feeding on a dead whale off the coast of South Africa. "They seem more interested in the blubber, not the tissue."

Gulland and others are interested in both, if for no other reason than to learn more about the elusive creatures. An average adult blue whale is the length of three school buses parked bumper to bumper and weighs up to 100 tons.

Its tongue alone is the size of an elephant, and its Volkswagen-size heart pumps 2,500 gallons of blood.

Eating as much as four tons of plankton and krill a day, blue whales have had a remarkable resurgence in California, with 2,000 plying the waters between the Farallones and the Channel Islands, off Santa Barbara. It is the biggest concentration of the species in the world.

Still, fewer than 10,000 now exist in all the oceans, compared with as many as 200,000 before whaling decimated the herds.

Guy Oliver, the research director for the Oceanic Society, who heard about the blue whale from the fishing boat skipper and quickly spread the word, said blues were so extraordinarily fast and alert that whaling ships could not even catch them until the 20th century. The invention of steam power and high compression harpoons allowed whalers to kill vast numbers starting in the 1930s, many in Antarctica.

Scientists badly want to perform studies on this particular whale not only because specimens are so rare -- the last blue whale washed up in Bolinas 12 years ago -- but because of fears that infection may have contributed to its death. Sea lions, birds and other marine mammals have recently been dying from an outbreak that scientists believe is caused by domoic acid, a naturally occurring byproduct of bacteria that live in zooplankton.

The 70-foot-long beast had four large propeller wounds on its top and side, leading researchers to believe that it was killed in a collision with a ship. But Oliver and Gulland are concerned that the whale may have been sick and too lethargic to get out of the way of the ship. If domoic acid was the cause, it could be a signal of a serious environmental problem.

But the carcass needs to be fresh to find that out. Gulland said the whale had died within 36 hours of the time she saw it. Oliver believes it died around midnight Tuesday, when a cruise ship called the Coast Guard to report a dead whale causing a navigational hazard.

Researchers are hoping the wind and tide will carry it to Ocean Beach in San Francisco within the next two days, but fear is mounting that it will sink first.

Thick fog and choppy seas hampered efforts Thursday to track the massive mammal. It was last seen around 11 p.m. Wednesday moving south with the tide about 5 miles due south of Stinson Beach, according to the Coast Guard.

"It is a disappointment," said Oliver. "When you've got a fresh animal, there is a very great deal we can learn from it. Once the animal deteriorates, it is very difficult to detect infections. Now, because of those sharks, the animal is floating, and we do not know exactly where."

The International Whaling Commission recognized that blue whales were on the verge of extinction as far back as the 1950s.

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