This is the first time NOAA Fisheries has had a report of a dead sperm whale in the Inside Passage. Its discovery provided a unique opportunity for marine mammal experts from NOAA Fisheries, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Sitka Stranding Network, and University of Alaska to perform a necropsy (or animal autopsy).
“This is an exceptional opportunity for a marine mammal biologist,” said Kate Savage, NOAA Fisheries lead veterinarian on the necropsy. “There are a lot of unknowns around sperm whale biology and life history in Alaskan waters, so we could learn a lot from this stranding.”
On March 20 a team led by Savage collected the whale’s teeth to determine age, blubber to check for contaminants, and a variety of tissue samples to examine DNA and other health indicators.
The team collected the whale’s teeth to determine age, blubber to check for contaminants, and a variety of tissue samples to enable future studies, and understand factors that contributed to the whale’s death.
Only two other sperm whales have been necropsied in Alaska since 1990. The first was a partial necropsy of a whale that stranded in Resurrection Bay in 2006, the second was a calf that stranded near Homer in 2009.
Researchers with the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project (SEASWAP) are working to determine if the dead sperm whale is one of three known individuals to frequent Chatham Strait and Lynn Canal, based on tagging data collected in the past five years.