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Rare pygmy sperm whale washes up on Sonoma Coast beach

A dead pygmy sperm whale washed ashore on a Sonoma Coast beach over the weekend, giving marine mammal experts a rare chance to examine a creature that normally spends its life out in the ocean deep.

The intact body of the nine-foot-long pregnant whale beached Saturday on the sand at Salmon Creek, with no clear signs of trauma, said Barbie Halaska, necropsy manager with the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

Pygmy sperm whales are pelagic, meaning they live in deeper waters beyond the continental shelf. They are far less likely to wash ashore than other species, such as gray and humpback whales.

“Even if one dies, they don’t necessarily strand on land,” Halaska said. “Getting to see one is really rare for us.”

Halaska and a team of about a half-dozen veterinary technicians, lab assistants and pathology experts went to the beach Sunday and collected the whale’s internal organs and head to be more fully examined at the center’s Marin County marine mammal hospital.

The internal organs could hold a clue as to how the female whale died, pointing to disease, infection or other maladies.

The animal can also provide scientists with a “snapshot of what’s happening in the ocean at that time,” Halaska said.

An examination revealed was she was pregnant with a fully-formed calf between two and three feet long.

A pygmy sperm whale pregnancy lasts between 9 and 11 months, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Halaska said they did not yet remove the fetus from its gestational sac.

The whale’s organs at first glimpse appeared healthy, with fat around the heart and blubber, both signs of good condition, Halaska said.

“These guys can actually get fat around their heart and kidneys, and that’s great. It means they’re eating well,” Halaska said.

Pygmy sperm whales have teeth on the lower jaw. They eat squid, octopus, crustaceans and fish, using echolocation to find prey.

The species use a defense similar to squid to escape predators. They have sacs filled with dark liquid in the intestine and can release more than three gallons of a dark-reddish-brown liquid to create a cloud in the water, according to NOAA.

The last response to a beached pygmy sperm whale for the Marine Mammal Center was in August 2018 at South Salmon Creek Beach. It was a male and the Marine Mammal Center staff couldn’t determine how it died.

Halaska said they had no sure way of knowing the female whale’s weight but said she appeared to be well over 500 pounds.

Bystanders wandered close as the team worked Sunday afternoon to collect specimens, messy work that also drew scavenger birds overhead.

Much of the whale’s body was left behind on the beach, with permission from California State Parks.

Whales are much more difficult to observe than other marine mammals. You might get a fleeting glimpse of a fluke, a tail, a spout,“ Halaska said. ”When you’re at the beach next to them, you get this incredible sense of them.“

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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