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.