40-foot endangered sperm whale washes ashore in Oregon

A 40-foot sperm whale was found dead along the Oregon coast on Saturday, after its body washed ashore on a stretch of beach at Fort Stevens State Park, officials said.

The whale was found near the park's flagship Peter Iredale shipwreck and belongs to an endangered species of marine mammals, the Seaside Aquarium wrote in a Facebook post shared on Sunday. The aquarium also shared a brief video to its social media page of the beached sperm whale after it was discovered.

There were several "large gashes" found on the whale's body, which are partly visible in the video and could have resulted from a collision with a ship, according to the aquarium. Initially, the aquarium said it was unclear whether the strike "occurred before or after death." But a necropsy conducted by officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Monday afternoon subsequently confirmed that the whale was alive when it was hit by a passing ship, and the collision was fatal, Michael Milstein, a spokesperson for the agency, told CBS News in an email. Milstein said the cause of death was determined based on internal bleeding.

The aquarium's Facebook post noted that staff at Fort Stevens State Park removed the sperm whale's lower jaw "so that the teeth remained intact for scientific purposes," adding that the whale was "believed to be a juvenile male." Milstein told CBS News on Monday that a sperm whale measuring 40 feet is "about the typical size" for an adult male, although results of the necropsy later indicated that the whale was about 20 years old "and generally appeared to be in good health" at the time of his death, the spokesperson said.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales on Earth, according to NOAA, with males sometimes reaching almost 60 feet in length and weighing more than 40 tons. They typically feed on marine species found in deep waters, like squid, sharks and other fish, and can live as long as 60 years. The population of sperm whales found off the west coast of the U.S. is estimated at about 2,000, Milstein said, but "they are less common this far north in winter."

"So the presence of the sperm whale at this time of year is somewhat unusual but we have had sperm whale strandings in winter before," Milstein explained, adding, "Sperm whales are the third most common species of whale to strand in Oregon, after gray whales and humpback whales."

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conduct a necropsy on Monday, Jan. 16, to determine what caused the death of a sperm whale whose body washed ashore in northern Oregon over the weekend. / Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Permit# 24359
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conduct a necropsy on Monday, Jan. 16, to determine what caused the death of a sperm whale whose body washed ashore in northern Oregon over the weekend. / Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Permit# 24359

Although the exact size of the current global sperm whale population is not known, estimates suggest there could be anywhere from 200,000 to 1 1/2 million of them inhabiting oceans across the world, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has reported. The whales are listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, after nearly two centuries of commercial whaling practices "greatly decreased sperm whale populations worldwide," according to NOAA Fisheries.

The government agency notes that the sperm whale population is "likely increasing" since a moratorium was placed on commercial fishing in 1986, but is also "still recovering" as a species whose survival remains under threat for a number of reasons. Per NOAA Fisheries, which leads sperm whale conservation efforts, the species is vulnerable to vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, underwater noise pollution, which can hinder their ability to communicate, marine debris, oil spills and other contaminants, as well as various consequences of climate change.

Few incidents have been documented where a marine vessel fatally struck a sperm whale, according to NOAA. However, from 2010 to 2014, the agency reported that 37 whales were injured by vessel strikes along North America's Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, with similar estimates along the Pacific coast. NOAA has called these reports "minimum estimates," which "are likely low because the number of deaths and serious injuries that go unreported is unknown." Additional studies have indicated that marine vessels pose a significant threat to whales and other marine life, with one published in 2017 suggesting that as many as about 80 blue, fin and humpback whales are struck along the U.S. west coast every year.

A number of whales, including some that belonged to endangered species, have been killed or injured in U.S. waters recently. Earlier this month, a 4-year-old North Atlantic right whale — one of the rarest in the world, with only a few hundred remaining — was originally spotted on Jan. 8 by an aerial survey team from Florida's Clearwater Marine Aquarium, heavily entangled in fishing gear. The whale was seen again roughly 20 miles east of Rodanthe, North Carolina, with "several wraps of line around the mouth and tail" and more line trailing behind it, NOAA said. The animal was "likely to die" after the tangled fishing lines left her with "numerous wounds across her body and whale lice on her head," the agency said.

Around the same time, a 21-foot killer whale was found stranded and later died after washing ashore near Daytona Beach in Florida, while another 32-foot whale washed ashore in Brigantine, New Jersey, after officials said it was most likely struck and killed by a marine vessel, CBS Philadelphia reported. Earlier, in mid-December, a humpback whale named Moon — widely known and beloved by researchers who have studied her — was left with a broken spine and unable to use her tail after being struck by a ship while swimming from Canada to Hawaii. Experts said they believed the trip would be Moon's "last journey" before her death.

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