Authorities Dig Into Whale Death - NBC Bay Area

Authorities Dig Into Whale Death



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    The whale seen from a chopper overhead.

    Multiple oceanic agencies are investigating the origin of the whale carcass that was dragged into the Port of Oakland on Thursday by a container ship.

    Early findings indicate that the whale is a minke whale and that it was not killed in the San Francisco Bay, according to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and the Long Beach branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    Both agencies said the company that operated the ship, Norton Lilly International, is cooperating with the investigation by answering questions, arranging the removal of the carcass from the harbor, and compiling a report that will be submitted to NOAA within a month.

    That report will indicate where the carrier's journey started and
    could help shed light on where the whale was hit, which NOAA spokesman Joe
    Cordaro said was "probably not in the immediate area of the San Francisco

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    Cordaro said NOAA gave official permission Thursday afternoon to
    have the carcass towed 10 to 12 miles offshore. Norton Lilly International
    was expected to contract a tow company for that removal by Friday morning, he

    Jeff Crysel, the Norton Lilly International operation manager for
    the Port of Oakland, said he could not comment on whether or not the carcass
    had been removed by 1 p.m. Friday.

    Cordaro said the preliminary NOAA investigation will focus simply
    on determining the species of the whale and whether or not the ship's
    operators saw the animal before they hit it.

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    The administration's enforcement division will then investigate
    whether the strike was unintentional, he said.

    "It's a high management priority to try to minimize the strikes on
    these animals," Cordaro said of stopping "ship strikes", as these collisions
    are called.

    The U.S. Coast Guard issued a reminder to boaters after the
    whale's body was found to be watchful for whales in the shipping channels
    near the Golden Gate Bridge, as the giant mammals will likely be hunting for
    krill, their tiny crustacean food source, in the passageway.

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    "It's sad for us to see something like this happen," Jim Oswald of
    the Marine Mammal Center said. "We encourage the public to really educate
    themselves about marine mammals."

    The last report of a collision between a ship and a whale in San
    Francisco Bay was in 2008, and before that in 2006, Cordaro said. Delta and
    Dawn, a humpback cow and calf that got media attention in 2007 when they
    became trapped in and were successfully freed from the Sacramento River, were
    also determined from their injuries to be ship strike victims.

    Cordaro said NOAA has been trying to reduce ship strikes by asking
    vessels in the shipping industry to slow down to 10 knots or less when they
    are traveling in an area that has been experiencing an influx of hungry

    Whales hit at 10 knots or less stand a far greater chance of
    surviving the collision than whales hit at higher speeds, Cordaro said.

    However, he said it can be difficult for ships to travel that
    slowly, a land-speed equivalent of about 11.5 mph.

    "To ask a ship to hold at 10 knots for its whole journey doesn't
    appeal to the economic aspect," he said. "It adds cost to the trip."

    Cordaro estimated that the carrier ship that dragged the whale on
    Thursday was probably traveling at around 20 knots - standard carrier ship
    traveling speed - when it struck the animal.

    The massive ship dwarfed the whale as it was pushed along on the
    bow of the carrier, which pulled into Berth 57 in Oakland around 10 a.m.

    "They are so huge, even an 80-foot animal is miniature compared to
    these ships," Cordaro said.

    The whale has been estimated to be between 30 and 50 feet long,
    but Oswald said it may be impossible to ever determine how big it was because
    pieces of it were missing by the time it got to Oakland.

    Sharks began to feed on the carcass after the ship docked in
    Oakland, but Cordaro could not confirm that the whale had shark bites on it
    when the boat arrived at port.

    Officials from the Marine Mammal Center removed skin tissue
    samples from the carcass on Thursday, Oswald said. Cordaro said only when
    those samples return from lab testing in several months will it be certain
    what species the whale was.

    Oswald said multiple specialists from the mammal center, which
    investigated the incident under the direction of NOAA, were "pretty
    confident" the whale is a minke.

    That species is more prevalent in the Bay Area than in Southern
    California, Cordaro said.

    Unlike blue and humpback whales, minke whales are not on the
    Endangered Species List, but are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection
    Act, he said.