The migration of a sperm whale came to an end with the animal’s burial April 10-three days after it was first sighted in the waves off of Sands Beach. Although the thirty-foot whale initially washed up on the shore of Isla Vista early Sunday, the tide moved the body past the shore bordering UCSB’s campus and onto Goleta Beach. While scientists studying the animal could not answer why the whale died or what region of the ocean it died in, they did say that the presence of squid beaks in its stomach could give clues to whales’ feeding habits.
The whale, identified as a young adult female, had been deceased for at least a week before it beached, said a team of vertebrate zoologists from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. In Santa Barbara, sightings of these whales are rare, as they would not normally be found in a channel. They spend their time in the deep open water of the ocean. A small crowd of curious students and Santa Barbara residents gathered on the beach as the bulldozing representatives from the county worked to bury the whale deep in shale so it will wash back out to the ocean.
Before the whale was buried, the research team was able to make an important discovery: a multitude of squid beaks among the contents of this animal’s stomach. Although researchers know that Sperm Whales feed on squid, there is some doubt whether they eat Giant Squid. The necropsy at Goleta Beach revealed that Sperm Whales could possibly prey upon these other marine behemoths, though further research will determine whether the large beak actually belonged to a Giant Squid. “This is the biggest beak I have ever seen,” said Paul Collins, a curator in the museum’s vertebrate zoology department, as he held up a beak roughly the size of his hand. The museum plans to determine the species of squid by examining the beaks.
Sperm Whales have achieved fame through the tale of Moby Dick and are unique among large whales in that they possess teeth instead of baleen, a sort of bristly filter that catches small fish or plankton. In fact, Sperm Whales can grow to measure up to sixty feet in length, and are the largest animals on earth to have teeth. These teeth provide vital information for the biologists who study them. Researchers can determine the age of a Sperm Whale by looking at the rings on its teeth, or by observing how much its tooth pulp is filled in. Unfortunately, before the research team could take a look at the whale, most of its teeth were illegally wrenched or hacked out while it was beached in front of the cliffs of Del Playa Drive.
The team from The Santa Barbara Natural History Museum was able to obtain several teeth samples that they plan to examine, along with samples of the whale’s stomach, intestine, feces, and lungs. Museum representatives could not answer if the whale died as a result of traumatic sound caused by boat motors in the Santa Barbara Channel, though some marine researchers suspect that the underwater disruption is responsible for disrupting whales’ navigational abilities and causing them injury.