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Whale of an opportunity

  • Humboldt State University students Tuesday inspect a 72-foot, female blue whale that washed ashore Monday just south of Fort Bragg. A Humboldt State expert estimated the whale weighed more than 50 tons. (LARRY R. WAGNER)

The death of a massive blue whale off the Mendocino Coast offers a valuable opportunity for whale researchers.

"This is a big deal," said Thor Holmes, curator of the vertebrate museum at Humboldt State University and a member of the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

The 72-foot whale died after being struck by a research vessel, believed to be the 78-foot Pacific Star. Its crew is under contract to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to update maps of the ocean floor. The contractor is based in San Diego while the boat was leased from Washington, said Joe Cordaro, an NOAA biologist.

Crew members reported Monday they were seven miles off Fort Bragg moving at about 5 knots when the ship shuddered, he said. They had not spotted a whale and didn't immediately know what happened. Then a whale surfaced, bleeding profusely, Cordaro said.

A few hours later, a blue whale with huge gashes washed up along the rocky coast just south of Fort Bragg.

Cordaro said it's hard to explain how a ship and whale would collide in the open ocean. But when whales are feeding, breeding or coming up for air, they aren't paying attention to their surroundings, he said.

The death saddened Holmes, but when he heard the carcass was in good shape, he grabbed two biology students from their class on the Arcata campus and headed south to Mendocino County to gather information for the marine network, which is overseen by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.

Finding a whale carcass in good condition is rare, he said. Normally, whales die, sink and do not resurface until they're bloated and decomposing, Holmes said.

He believes marine biologists and museum curators around the country are wishing they had a chance to examine the whale.

"This is gloriously fresh, speaking as a dissector," Holmes said.

He and the students took advantage of low tides Tuesday evening to examine the carcass, which had been rolling in the waves along a rocky, precarious stretch of the Mendocino Coast but was briefly on solid ground.

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