OLYMPIA, Wash. —
A gray whale that died after stranding on a West Seattle beach had a large amount of trash in its stomach, ranging from a pair of sweat pants to a golf ball, said biologists who examined the animal.
Scientists with the Cascadia Research Collective said Monday that the examination did not immediately determine why the 37-foot near-adult male died, but it was found to be in better nutritional condition than some other gray whales that have died recently. Starvation was not considered a major contributor to its death.
In a news release, the research organization said the animal found on the beach Thursday had more than 50 gallons of material in its stomach. Most was algae - typical of the bottom-feeding whales - but "a surprising amount of human debris" also was found.
Besides the pants and golf ball, the trash included more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, plastic pieces and duct tape.
The debris made up only 1 percent to 2 percent of the stomach contents and there was no clear indication it caused the whale's death. But Cascadia said the junk showed the whale had tried to feed in industrial waters.
Gray whales feed by sucking in sediment in shallow waters and filtering out small organisms that live there.
Cascadia said the whale had cuts on the head, possibly from a boat propeller, but they did not appear fresh or deep enough to have contributed to its death. A large number of samples were taken and will be analyzed, but results will not be known for weeks or months, the organization said.
So far this year, five gray whales have died in Washington waters, four of them in Puget Sound in the last two weeks. That number is far below the 50 that died in Washington waters in 1999 and 2000, The Olympian newspaper reported.
"I'd say we are concerned but not alarmed yet," Cascade Research biologist John Calambokidis told the newspaper.
Three of the four whales to die in April appeared emaciated and all four apparently were stragglers from the nearly 20,000 gray whales that typically migrate north each spring from breeding grounds in Mexico to feeding grounds in Alaska. Whales that didn't get enough to eat in Alaska last year may now be running low on reserves, researchers told The Olympian.
State Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists also participated in the examination. Moving the animal to the remote examination site was coordinated by NOAA Fisheries with the help of Highline Community College, which hopes to preserve the whale's skeleton.
Information from: The Olympian, http://www.theolympian.com
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