Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Whale’s body found
near Hanalei Bay

The melon-headed calf
is packed in ice
prior to a necropsy

The body of a young melon-headed whale apparently left behind when the rest of its pod was chased out to sea was found yesterday near Hanalei Bay on Kauai.

The dead whale was discovered about 10 a.m. near Waipa Stream, said Glenn Schot, a North Shore resident who came across the whale.

"It's just sad," Schot said. He said he had been looking for the whale and had hoped there was still a chance it could be rescued.

The whale's body was packed in ice and shipped to a marine mammal center in California where a necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of death, said Bill Robinson, regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service.

Robinson said the whale appeared to be a small calf about a year old. It was about 35 inches in length and had no visible signs of injury.

About 7:30 a.m. Saturday, a pod of about 150 melon-headed whales appeared in Hanalei Bay, a rare occurrence since the whales are usually found at least 20 miles offshore.

A team of veterinarians and whale stranding specialists flew to Kauai and kept watch overnight to make sure the animals did not beach themselves.

On Sunday morning, volunteers using canoes, kayaks and a string of morning glory vines to herd the pod back out to sea.

At the time, veterinarian Bob Braun, who helped lead the effort, described it as a "storybook ending."

But later Sunday afternoon, a young whale that apparently had become separated from the pod was seen in the bay near the mouth of the Hanalei River.

"I saw something jumping around right near the reef," said Jak Ayers, a marine science teacher who was on a boat anchored near the river mouth.

The whale stuck its head out of the water as if looking around, he said. But he lost track of the animal because of heavy Fourth of July boat traffic.

Ayers called NOAA and informed them of the sighting.

Robinson said the NOAA scientists, who were flying back to Honolulu at the time, were turned around and sent back to Kauai.

Gretchen Johnson, a NOAA volunteer, said she and other volunteers searched for the whale unsuccessfully Sunday night.

Melon-headed whales are "extremely social," Robinson said. For a young whale to become separated, "it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that the animal probably wouldn't survive."

Robinson said the decision to herd the pod back out to sea was the right one, given what is known about melon-headed whales.

"The whales are adapted to the open ocean, and they are not normally found in bays and estuaries and they need to feed constantly to keep their energies up," Robinson said.

The whales were not able to eat in the bay, so "the sooner they were gotten out of the bay and into their natural habitat, the better off the animals are," he said.

Scientists are still trying to figure out what caused the whales to come so close to shore. It is hoped the necropsy will provide some clues, Robinson said.

Lt. Cmdr. Greg Geisen, a spokesman for the Rim of the Pacific naval exercises taking place off Kauai, said ships were using "active sonar" Saturday morning starting about 8 a.m. Active sonar involves sending out sonar pulses to bounce off objects and is different from passive sonar, which is "when you're just listening," he said.

The exercises involving active sonar were suspended Saturday afternoon as a precaution after NOAA called the Navy, Geisen said.

RIMPAC exercises resumed yesterday but did not involve active sonar, he said.

Besides sonar, biotoxins in the water, parasites, disease and ocean conditions are also possible reasons for the whales' behavior.

Robinson said unless the necropsy turns up some clues, it might be difficult to determine why the whales came to Hanalei Bay.

"If we don't find something there, then we'll probably never know," he said.

NOAA Office of Protected Resources


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