Although less than a year old, an endangered fin whale — the second longest animal species in the world growing up to 90 feet in length — was already 42 feet long when it was beached on the California shore this week. The animal died 12 hours later, but it is still providing researchers with valuable scientific information.
The fin whale was still alive when it was first found on Stinson beach in Marin County, making it the first fresh whale for researchers to study.
“These large whales, by the time they wash up, they’re already severely debilitated,” Shawn Johnson, the director of veterinary science at The Marine Mammal Center, told Wired. “This is our first live whale.”
Although the whales are rarely seen, preferring deep waters, KTVU-TV reported this whale being one of four washing up on a beach since 2010. Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Kate Harle told KTVU they believe two of these four whales were struck by boats.
Officials said the whale was beached sometime after midnight Monday and was discovered in early morning. Some of those who witnessed it took photos and video.
This footage shows the whale still alive, struggling to get back out to sea:
This brief clip shows the whale trying to free itself as those watching cheered for it:
“It made me sad, because I know there’s a lot of whales out there, but he was just a baby, and he should’ve had a lot longer life,” Allaura Barrett, one of hundreds of spectators, told KNTV-TV.
Th American Cetacean Society states that precise numbers of the entire fin whale population worldwide is unknown, but about 40,000 are thought to exist in the northern hemisphere and up to 20,000 in the southern hemisphere. This is only a small percentage of earlier levels as the whale was heavily poached in the early in 1900s.
By the time researchers arrived on the beach, the whale had died, but they performed a necropsy, which they hope will help yield cause of death and other information about the species.
“If it was human related we want to find that reason, if it’s disease we want to better understand what is affecting the populations of these endangered whales,” Johnson said, according to KGO-TV.
In addition to evaluating the exterior of the whale, researchers took samples from inside, including what Wired described as arm-thick intestines, grapefruit-size eyeballs and baleen, which had to be cut with a branch cutter. (Be sure to check out some of these parts in Wired’s photos.)
This aerial footage shows research crews working on the deceased whale:
The remains of the whale were eventually buried in the sand on the beach.