Gray Whale Dies from Sucking Sand

Tests Will Take One Month, But Goleta Beach Carcass Had Belly Full of Sand

The young gray whale that entertained countless of Stearns Wharf onlookers last week washed up dead on Goleta Beach Wednesday night, February 17, and an examination of the carcass on Thursday morning revealed a belly full of sand. Although the test results from tissue samples won’t be complete for a month, the sandy stomach, explained Michelle Berman of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, suggests that the juvenile female whale likely died either from an impacted digestive system or the resulting starvation.

“She was attempting to feed, but wasn’t very successful,” said Berman, the museum’s associate curator of vertebrate zoology, explaining that gray whales eat tiny arthropods found on the sea floor. “They skim along the bottom and scoop up the muck, then expel the muck and swallow the food,” said Berman. “She must have seen her mom feed, so she knew to skim along the bottom and pick things up, but she didn’t know not to eat the sand.”

Despite multiple recent sightings of this five-meter-long, roughly six-week-old whale, she was always alone and never with her mother. That was immediately a sign of problems, because mothers will typically stay with their offspring for six or seven months, said Berman. “There are a lot of underlying reasons why she is not with her mother, so we are taking samples to analyze what else is going on with her,” said Berman, explaining that there may be congenital defects or an illness that contributed to her demise. “There must be some reason why she wasn’t fit enough to keep with her mom,” said Berman.

Berman and her Museum of Natural History team — which is a member of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and analyzes the carcasses of animals in the counties of Ventura, S.B., and San Luis Obispo — could tell by the markings on its tail that the dead whale was the same one that visited Stearns Wharf. They were able to do so thanks to the help of The Independent’s photographer Paul Wellman, who sent images of the whale’s fluke pattern directly to museum staff. This is the first beached whale of 2010, though Berman said that they typically get a couple every year during this season.

“While it is sad that this animal died, we do take it as our responsibility to get as much information out of the animal as possible,” said Berman, who also collected some of its baleen for educational purposes. The deceased whales “are contributing a lot to different studies, so there is some good coming out of this animal’s death.” Berman added that there are plenty of gray whale sightings right now. “It’s a great time to get out and see them,” she said.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.