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In death, beached Turnagain humpback offers clues, research samples and food

May 7, 2019

Researchers work to remove samples Wednesday, May 1, 2019 from a humpback whale that died after beaching in Turnagain Arm near Girdwood. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media photo)

A humpback whale died after it beached in Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage near Girdwood. Biologists say it is an uncommon location for a humpback and they are now studying its death.

The whale became stranded twice early last week. It appeared to free itself but its body washed ashore Tuesday a few miles away from where it had first beached. Researchers carefully took measurements and samples, and subsistence users harvested blubber for food.

The whale looks to be two years old or a little younger, according to Kathy Burek, a veterinary pathologist and part of the National Marine Fisheries Service team investigating the whale’s death.

The researchers are still looking at what caused its death, but Burek said she thinks the whale might have been following fish or smaller whales that are better-suited for the narrow, shallow channels of Upper Cook Inlet.

“I really think the most likely thing is this is just a really young animal. Maybe it followed the hooligan up or a bunch of Belugas,” Burek said. “So I think he just got a little confused and headed up the arm and he just got lost and and can’t get out.”

Samples taken from the whale can answer a variety of questions, including how stressed the whale had been in its final days or, looking at its genetics, how it is related to other whales, Burek said. They might not find a specific cause of death, she said, but there are still many research projects that will benefit from studying samples from the whale.