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Vancouver Islanders honour, learn from dead grey whale calf found near Tofino

Kayakers spotted the baby grey, researchers perform necropsy to learn more about its life and death
Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Joe Martin and Veterinary Pathologist Dr. Stephen Raverty examine the carcass of a baby grey whale on Oct. 31. (John Forde photo)

A dead grey whale calf was discovered in the Tofino harbour on Saturday, Oct. 30.

Kayakers first spotted the animal in the mouth of the harbour then immediately called the Marine Mammal Sighting hotline (1-800-465-4336), which allowed enough time for a team of local whale experts and researchers to perform a necropsy the next day.

“This poor animal. It was just over 10-feet. Grey whale calves are born at 14 to 16-feet so this was a premature birth,” said Paul Cottrell of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) Pacific Marine Mammal Response.

Renowned whale researcher Dr. Jim Darling was out on his vessel on Saturday and was able to secure the animal and tow it to the Remote Passages dock with the help of local champions of marines mammals Don Travers, Kati Martini and Marcie Callewaert.

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations Joe Martin and Levi Martin offered an Indigenous prayer and blessing for the baby whale.

“It was really touching and important ceremony for the animal before we started the necropsy,” said Cottrell.

Veterinary Pathologist Dr. Stephen Raverty did the necropsy over a couple hours with members from Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society observing.

“It was found that the animals lungs were inflated so it was born alive and it did live for sometime. We were able to determine that there was milk in the intestines so the animal had nursed,” Cottrell said.

He went on to say that because the calf had not had its first bowel movement that it likely died quite soon after being born.

“Unfortunately looking at the timeline, it may have coincided with that real nasty storm that happened last week,” said Cottrell.

Samples from the necropsy will help determine if the baby calf is part of Pacific Coastal feeding group or part of the Alaska group that travels up and down the coast.

“It was amazing how much the necropsy yielding in terms of information on this poor animal that had such a short life. It was such a great effort by all involved to secure this animal so quickly and get it to where we can do the necropsy. Every day the animal decomposes we get less and less information,” Cottrell said.

The baby whale carcass was taken to an isolated spot back in nature to go back to the food web.

Since 2019, the North Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared a Grey Whale Unusual Mortality Event along the west coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska.

“In B.C. we had 11 dead grey whales in 2019. There were five in 2020 and in we’ve had four already in 2021. The death rate has come down a little bit, but it’s still much higher than typically how many deaths we get in a year,” said Cottrell.

DFO is working with NOAA and officials in Mexico to share all the grey whale necropsy results. One theory Cottrell lends for the unusual mortality event is ocean productivity in the Bering Sea.

“It’s really a team effort to try to figure out the reasons for this die-off,” he said.

Anyone that sees a marine mammal in distress or dead is encouraged to report it as soon as possible by calling: 1-800-465-4336 or VHF Channel 16.

RELATED: Spike in grey whale deaths on West Coast prompts investigation

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