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Biologist says whale killed by ship

By Doug O’Harra

Anchorage Daily News

29th May 2003

Dead humpback had massive trauma to skull, but vessels report no strikes.

A dead humpback whale seen floating near the mouth of Yakutat Bay in mid-May appears to have been struck by a ship -- with enough force to sever its skull from its spine, according to the federal biologist who led a team to examine the carcass after it washed ashore near Icy Bay.

"The skull was not part of the backbone -- it was displaced off to one side," said Michael Payne, head of protected resources with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau. "I'm completely confident that it was a ship strike, and it had to be a tremendous blow."

An exam on Monday by three veterinarians found signs of internal bleeding along the whale's right side, indicating that it had been alive when hit, Payne said. Part of the skull on that side had shattered, and the internal organs were disrupted.

Humpbacks are an endangered species, protected by federal law.

But the vets could not directly examine the fatal wound because the rapidly decomposing carcass was lying on its back on the beach. The 47-foot female probably weighed more than 30 tons.

The team also was not able to figure out how long the whale had been dead. It had first been seen near Point Manby on May 15 or 16 by bush pilot Les Hartley. The carcass drifted northwest on May 17, when it was photographed trailing some debris. It beached on May 18 near the Yahtse River.

A pilot landing on the beach by the whale that day reported it was still fresh and didn't smell, Payne said.

"It probably died within the day or so of when it was first seen."

It wasn't clear whether the whale could have been hit out in the Gulf of Alaska and drifted ashore or had been hit closer to Yakutat or in the bay. The U.S. Coast Guard doesn't keep track of general vessel traffic in the gulf, a spokeswoman said.

"If you hit a whale (in protected waters), you're going to know it," said Dale Collins, president of the Southeast Alaska Pilots' Association, which provides pilots for ships entering certain Alaska waters like Yakutat and Glacier bays. "But it could be a ship hit it offshore and maybe didn't know it hit it because it was in a heavy swell."

The only two large vessels known to enter Yakutat Bay during the previous week -- the 866-foot cruise ship Mercury and the Alaska state ferry Kennicott -- did not report hitting any whales.

Celebrity Cruises' 77,700-ton Mercury took a round trip to the Hubbard Glacier on May 14 with an Alaska marine pilot on the bridge, lookouts on duty and hundreds of its 1,870 guests viewing the scene, said Bill Wright, captain of ships and senior vice president for safety and environment, in a phone interview from Miami.

The ship's officers would have immediately reported hitting a whale.

"I'm confident saying there has been no strike," Wright said. "What theoretically could have happened is that it swam inadvertently into the propeller of the vessel. That's something that could have happened that might not have been noticed on board."

The Kennicott docked at Yakutat early May 14 and continued a trip toward Prince William Sound, said Capt. Jack Meyers, Alaska Marine Highway system operations manager.

"We have no report that they bumped any whales," he said. "It's possible that a ship could do that and not notice it, depending the seas and so forth. But it would be highly unusual."

Bert Adams, the environmental director of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, said locals and elders have been more worried about cruise ships disturbing and driving away harbor seals in Disenchantment Bay than about whales getting struck or killed.

"If they hit it and didn't know, well, accidents happen," he said. "But I think it's upsetting if in fact a cruise ship hit the whale and didn't report it."

Federal officers probably wouldn't open a formal investigation into the whale's death without more information, Payne said. "From the enforcement perspective, there's not a lot to go on."

Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'