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Whale That Popularized Klamath River RV Park Dies

August 17, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Click here to see photos of the whale and the story from The Daily Triplicate, Crescent City, Calif.

A gray whale that spent 52 days in Northern California’s Klamath River and drew thousands of spectators to the area near the U.S. Highway 101 bridge beached itself and died early Tuesday (Aug. 16).

The whale got stuck on a sand bar near the bridge around 7 p.m. Monday, got herself back into the ocean only to beach again later that night, according to people watching from the Klamath River RV Park near the sandbar, The Daily Triplicate reported.

The whale died around 4:20 a.m Tuesday.

Later in the morning biologists and a crew worked to tie a rope around her tail and pull her from the middle of the river to the north bank by using an excavator.

By 1 p.m. the whale was back on dry land, where biologists began taking samples for an autopsy.

The whale will eventually be buried near the sandbar to decompose the body. Her skeleton will then go to the Yurok Tribe.

The mother gray whale entered the river in late June along with her calf. The juvenile headed back to sea July 23 — it was about 6 months old, about the time when calves usually separate from their mothers.

The cause of the mother whale’s death is unclear, but her behavior changed significantly in the past few days, observers said.

“Yesterday her condition started deteriorating very quickly,” said Sarah Wilkin, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in California.

The whale began taking shorter breaths and was unable to maintain its balance, Wilkin said.

“Instead of diving she would roll over, which isn’t a good sign at all,” said Wilkin.

It’s hoped the autopsy will determine whether there was an underlying condition in the whale before she entered the river, Wilkin said.

Animals sometimes mask their symptoms as a defense mechanism, so it’s common for their conditions to suddenly turn for the worse, Wilkin said.

Samples will be taken from tissue and abnormalities found on the carcass and tested for infectious diseases, Wilkin said.

The reason for the whale and her calf’s detour into the river also remains unclear.

On June 26, they were observed a few hundred yards up the river by Alan Justice, a wildlife photographer and coordinator for whale-watching observation points.

In the days preceding their entrance, the whales were with other mothers and calves near the mouth, a popular feeding place for whales in May.

The whales didn’t seem to be just feeding. It was presumed mating was going on between the mother whale and two other whales on June 23 and 24, Justice said.

“That went on all afternoon for at least four hours,” said Justice. “One possibility is she just wanted to get away from that mating activity and that’s why she swam upriver.”

Justice shot many of his photos and got the most exposure to the whales during the beginning days they were closer to the mouth of the river; thousands of other spectators flocked to the bridge where the whale spent a majority of her time swimming circles with her calf.

The whales sparked a lot of interest, which parlayed into more attention for Klamath and the river, said Rich Mossholder, owner of the Klamath River Jet Boat Tours.

His business picked up, but it’s not necessarily due to the whale presence — summer is when business peaks for boat tours.

Mossholder suggested the whale came into the river because she was having medical issues.

“Maybe she knew it was her time,” said Mossholder. “Nature has a way of taking care of things, it always has and always will.”

“I wanted to see her survive. I still have to live with the fact this might’ve been her choice.”

The calf hasn’t been seen since it departed the river. Photographs have been disseminated to the network of biologists that track whales up and down the coast. And biologists are keeping an eye out for it, Wilkin said.

The network database is what helped biologists discover the mother whale was the same whale documented off the coast of Washington in 2001, Wilkin said.

The whale was part of the Pacific Coast Feeding Aggregate, a group of gray whales that stop in Pacific Northwest waters rather than traveling all the way to Alaska in their migration from mating waters in Baja, California. Some of those whales are part of the same mammals referred to as the “local pod” off Del Norte’s shore.

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