PACIFICA, Calif. (AP) — When a 50-foot sperm whale washed ashore on a beach south of San Francisco, people stopped to look, snapped pictures of the massive mammal and even reached out and touched the creature that looks more like a dark ocean rock than the largest tooth predator on earth.
Biologists and veterinarians, however, had a different plan. They arrived early Wednesday morning at Mori Point on the south end of Sharp Park State Beach in Pacifica to begin the necropsy and the arduous process of cutting up the carcass for removal. The next steps remain murky.
"Disposing of a large marine mammal like this is no small feat. Multiple agencies are working together to determine the best course of action," said Dr. Claire Simeone, a veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center.
Veterinarians and marine biologists from the Marine Mammal Center performed a necropsy on the whale and said they couldn't determine a cause of death.
"There were no broken bones, and while some hemorrhaging was visible in the muscles, it was not enough to indicate blunt-force trauma such as a ship strike," the center added.
The whale is emaciated, but squid beaks were found in its stomach, indicating that it had been eating, the center said.
The animal, which was first spotted Tuesday, is one of 17 dead sperm whales to beach along the North Coast of California during the 40 years that the center has been handling such cases, a spokeswoman said. The age and sex will be confirmed following the completion of the necropsy, but it is currently believed to be an adult male. The animal is emaciated.
In 2008, a 51-foot adult male sperm whale was found washed ashore in Point Reyes, north of San Francisco. Scientists who performed a necropsy found more than 450 pounds of trash in his stomach, which caused his death. The trash was used to create an art exhibit at the center's headquarters to teach visitors about the importance of keeping trash from oceans.
In January, a rare pygmy sperm whale died after beaching itself in Point Reyes. Investigators said it had likely gotten sick and was too weak to swim.
Whales, in general, are at risk in the waters where they live.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials have asked San Francisco Bay Area boaters to watch out for and steer clear of whales, which migrate into the San Francisco Bay Area in large numbers during the spring and summer.
Gray whales are at a particularly high risk of collisions with ships and boats, as they often travel near shore and may even wander into the bay this time of year, the administration reports.
Boaters should not approach within 100 yards of any whale, cut across a whale's path, make sudden speed or directional changes or get between a whale cow and her calf. People should not approach or touch dead or stranded animals of any species on shore but rather report them to the center immediately, mammal center officials said.
Information from: San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com