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An endangered young fin whale beached itself and died Monday morning on Upton Beach, fascinating and saddening a crowd that gathered at the Marin County beach hoping the huge mammal could be saved.

A veterinary team from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito found no obvious sign of trauma or infection during a post-mortem exam Monday afternoon and buried the 20-ton carcass Monday evening in the sand above the high-tide line.

Experts believe the approximately 40-foot juvenile likely came ashore during high tide around midnight Sunday, said Kate Harle, a spokeswoman for the Marine Mammal Center.

A resident at Seadrift, on the north end of Stinson Beach, reported the struggling whale at 6:30 a.m., said Marin County Parks Ranger Rob Ruiz.

Veterinarians from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito — the only marine mammal rescue group from Mendocino County to San Luis Obispo County — assembled a team shortly after 7 a.m. with hopes of assessing the health of the whale and creating a treatment or rescue plan.

The animal was still alive, drawing a crowd of onlookers on the broad sandy beach as it occasionally thrashed in an apparent attempt to move out past the surf line. National parks, county parks and county sheriff's deputies responded to keep onlookers — and their dogs and children — away from the thrashing animal.

"People were trying to take pictures standing on it," Ruiz said, and some dogs wanted to bite it.

The whale died in the surf around 9 a.m., said Shawn Johnson, the rescue center's director of veterinary science.

"It's just sad," said Amy Sass, who happened upon the sight from her accommodations down the beach. Her theater company, the Ragged Wing Ensemble of Oakland, was having a retreat nearby.

She watched the whale solemnly, a striking difference from many onlookers who snapped photos or went around the rangers' yellow tape to get a closer look. Others let their dogs run up to sniff the carcass.

Sass said her husband was taking photos to share with the theater company, which had been discussing scenes about death. "The whale has a story too," she said.

Samir Monti of Mill Valley brought his two children, Shen, 4, and Reys, 1, with his friend Liza Yee of San Rafael, who brought her two children, Lenin and Liam, 3, and their cousin, Lucy, 3.

"They had a book about a mouse who saved a beached whale," Yee said. "They wanted to see if it was the same whale."

Monti said seeing the huge mammal was "incredible" and a thrill for the kids.

"But it's 'only sleeping,'" he said of how much they understood.

Rescuing a beached whale is difficult, apart from the physical challenge of moving the giant creature. Once it leaves the protective buoyancy of the sea, a whale's enormous weight can crush its own organs.

"There's a gravity problem as soon as they beach. That's why it's incredibly hard to rescue live cetaceans," Harle said, referring to the order of marine mammal that includes porpoises, dolphins and whales.

Johnson estimated the whale at 42 feet and said the young male juvenile appeared to have already weaned due to the contents of his gastro-intestinal tract.

The team found no sign of trauma from a boat or fishing equipment nor did they detect any illness or infection during the post-mortem exam, which finished up as the tide came in Monday evening.

Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees

Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.

The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.

There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.

"He was in such good body condition, he had a lot of fat and blubber," Johnson said.

The team took measurements of the animal and a series of tissue samples and will continue to look for reasons why it ended up on the beach. They can live to 80 or 90 years old if they survive

"Hopefully on a microscopic level they can tell what happened," Johnson said.

Fin whales are the second-largest species of whale, weighing up to 80 tons at maturity in the Northern Hemisphere, and dwell well off-shore, in very deep water. They forage off the California Coast.

"Our goal is to learn more about these whales because they are so rare in our area," he said.

Though it is rare of them to come close to shore, the Marine Mammal Center has responded to three dead fin whales since 2010 – one in Oakland, in San Francisco Bay, in September 2010; a second a few days later, at Ocean Beach in San Francisco; and a third at Palomar Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore in June of last year. Two died from ship strikes and the other died from unknown causes, Harle said.

It's the 10th beached whale of any kind in the past three years, Johnson said, and the fifth this year. Most wash up already dead.

"It's extremely rare to have a live whale stranded," he said.

Although the instinct of some onlookers early Monday was to help the whale, Johnson said it's best to stay away. The 20-ton animal was thrashing in the surf and could easily hurt anyone nearby.

Marin County parks staff had dug a hole and were to bury the whale above the tide line on the beach once the scientists finished their work.

The only alternative was to tow it out to sea, with the likelihood it would only wash ashore again.

Johnson said anyone encountering a stranded animal at the beach should call the Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 415-289-SEALS.

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com

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