An Update on the Humpback Whale Necropsy

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An Update on the Humpback Whale Necropsy

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Feb 11, 2009

I left the house before dawn yesterday, something I definitely do not ordinarily do.  As I rounded the island’s one road to the west side–past Kalaheo, past Hanapepe and Waimea, past even Kalaheo–to where the dead whale carcass waited on the beach at PMRF, wrapped in a very large sheet, I peered through sleepy eyes out my front windshield and watched the full moon drop over the mountains.  The sky was so clear that I could easily see the shadows and craters–even the outline of the lady–in the moon.  Out of the corner of my eye, in the reflection of my review mirror, I spied the sun rising behind me.  Sights like this are worth waking up early for.

It turned out to be a sensory overloaded day.  And I didn't take a single photograph.

Here’s what I remember:  The sound of thousands of flies-like that of wind rushing from a fan.  The feel of the fluted baleen-like running your finger along a folded paper fan.  The size of the calf’s right lung-as big as a Hawaiian monk seal pup.  But the most vivid memory I have is the smell of dead whale intestines.  I cannot describe it.  And I will not try, except to say it was like nothing I have ever smelled before and something I have no desire to smell again.  Whenever I walked around the back of the whale, I tried to either hold my breath or exhale.  Of course, when I helped load the bloating–read:  growing–intestines in a giant cooler to be flown to Oahu for testing, I had to breathe every once in a while, so the stench is imprinted on my brain.  My shoes evoke a toned-down resemblance.  I will either have to wash them or trash them.  Right now, they are sealed in a plastic bag that I am hesitant to open.

The day’s work started with a blessing of the animal by Hawaiian cultural practitioner Sabra Kauka.  Wearing traditional dress, she asked everyone to gather in a circle around the whale.  She chanted in Hawaiian, sprinkling sea salt over the calf.  Then, we each went around the circle, sharing our names and roles for the day.

After that, everyone flew into action.  People from NOAA Fisheries Service and their contract veterinarian and members of the Hawaii Pacific University Marine Mammal Response Team.  Along with five of us volunteers from the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui.

At first glance, the whale calf looked perfectly healthy.  There were a few small, cookie cutter shark scars, which were not unusual, but no other shark wounds, which surprised me, especially since we think the whale had been floating dead for a couple or three days.  But once the necropsy started, the scientists found organs that were visibly diseased:  the heart, lungs, and liver.  This little (all 17 feet of her) calf was one sick whale.

I helped ferry whale parts from the carcass to an impromptu table where the samples were slipped into plastic bags, wrapped in tin foil and sucked into vials to be sent around the country for testing.  I helped replace broken scalpels with new blades.  I helped clean bones for analysis.  I helped sharpen filet knives when they dulled.  I hauled buckets of sea water from the ocean to our impromptu work station at the vegetation line on the beach.  Thank goodness for the tents that the Navy set up; they saved us from sunburn and from dehydration as a result of sweating.

While the necropsy was inconclusive, there were some cool discoveries.  Like the quarter-inch white hair already growing out of the tubercles on the whale’s mouth.  Like the pleats running practically the length of the calf’s body.  Like the close-cropped baleen around the whale’s mouth, presumably shorter than the rest, because she was still nursing.

I’m sure more will come to me over the next few days, and I am sure I have not answered all your questions.  Probably not even the obvious ones.  So, feel free to write.  Ask me your questions, and I will try to answer them.

By the way, you can read the follow up story in the The Garden Island newspaper here.

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