Tag Archives: Marine Mammal

A Rare Marine Mammal Washed In

What do COASST staff do on their time off?  Walk the beaches, of course!

And it was on such an excursion that Charlie Wright, the COASST verifier, and his wife Linnaea – both expert birders and natural historians – happened upon a Blainville’s beaked whale.

The dolphin-like "beak" and absence of large teeth helped us conclude that this was a female Beaked whale.

The dolphin-like “beak” and absence of large teeth indicate that this is a female beaked whale.

A what?!?

Beaked whales are one of the oldest and most speciose lineages of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), with 22 species documented to date.  Smaller than the large whales, and sometimes mistaken for dolphins, beaked whales have, as the name implies, a dolphin-like “beak” (or rostrum).  Vaguely sausage-shaped, they also sport short stubby flippers (front limbs), a small dorsal (back) fin, and a plain un-notched tail (also known as a fluke).  Males have two enormous teeth that look more like spade-shaped tusks, which they apparently use to fight other males for access to females.  These teeth vary by species and allow easy identification of males.  With no teeth to examine, the whale Charlie and Linnaea happened upon was a female.

Note the small dorsal fin!

Note the small dorsal fin.

Relatively unseen and unknown animals that range widely across the world’s oceans, beaked whales are deep divers that can submerge in the hunt for squid and deep-sea fish for over an hour.  No wonder people don’t often see them.  But they do wash ashore.  In fact, in 2014 a previously unknown species of beaked whale washed up on Zapadni Beach on St. George, Pribilof Islands (a COASST beach!).

All of the excitement over this rare find got us wondering, what kinds of marine mammals have COASSTers been recording over the years?  Although COASST doesn’t “officially” collect marine mammal data, since 1999 COASSTers have often reported what they find.  From 2000 through the present, just over 1,200 marine mammals were reported, most to group, like “seal” or “dolphin/porpoise.” Just over half (644) were identified to species.  In our new COASST protocol, we’ve added specifics about how to record and take photos of any beached marine mammal observed.

What can we say about these data?

First, we focused on the marine mammal carcasses identified to species.  These data are presented with numbers in parentheses under each photograph indicating the total count.  The winner?  Harbor seals, followed by sea otters and California sea lions.  Not a single beaked whale!  Notice that although there are slightly more species of cetaceans (8 in total compared to 7 pinnipeds), COASSTers are far more likely to find a pinniped (420 individuals versus only 63 for cetaceans).

Marine mammals reported by COASST volunteers and identified to species from 2000-present.

Marine mammals reported by COASST volunteers and identified to species from 2000-present.

Second, we mapped all of the species groups, from large whales to sea otters, as a function of location, from northern California north to the Bering and Chukchi Seas.  The “image collage” adjacent to each mega-region (we’ve combined the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands into “Salish Sea”) shows which species groups are found where.  The size of the photograph is proportional – bigger photos literally mean more of that group is found, and the image indicates which species in the group was identified most often.

In California, the group “sea lions and fur seals” dominate, with the vast majority of identified finds being California (of course!) sea lions.  North in Oregon and coastal Washington, “true seals” become more abundant in the finds identified to species.  In the Salish Sea, as many COASSTers can attest, harbor seals dwarf all other marine mammal finds. In fact, the chance of finding a harbor seal is not that much different from the chance of finding a beached bird (the recent Rhinoceros Auklet mortality event being an exception).

Sea otters, unknown from our California beaches and a true rarity along Oregon, become relatively more abundant along the Washington outer coast, and dominate the Gulf of Alaska beaches.

And then there are the finds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.  Notice that the only photograph in common with the other COASST mega-regions is the sea otter, everything else is different.  “True seals” dominate, but the species isn’t harbor, it’s spotted.  Rather than sea lions, COASSTers in these regions are more likely to find fur seals.  Not surprising when you consider that the Pribilof Islands (home to 8 COASST beaches) support breeding rookeries of Northern fur seals numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Marine mammal species abundance as a function of location, from northern California north to the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

Abundance by location, from northern California north to the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

Documenting beached marine mammals is an important objective for COASST.  So keep an eye out for the odd flipper, fluke or paw as you’re searching the beach.  With marine mammal populations shifting in abundance throughout the COASST range, we’re in the perfect position to create the definitive baseline.

Update from Charlie

As some of you know, Charlie takes a break from COASSTing each summer to do a little field work. This August, Charlie returned to Middleton Island for the fall field season and we just received his hand-written letter, which reads:

Hello COASSTers,
Here is a photo update. The weather has been unusually calm (and still) and there are signs of it being a warm water year. Beach finds include our first Velella velella and Cassin’s Auklet on the Island.

Velelella velella have been turned up at Middleton this summer, too.

Velella velella jellies have been turned up at Middleton Island this summer, too.

Cassin's Auklet's Auklet found on Middleton by Charlie.

Cassin’s Auklet’s Auklet (COASST guide AL8-AL9 or AK: AL21-AL22) found on Middleton Island by Charlie. Note the short, stout bill with pale spot at base, and in fresh birds, blue-toned feet.

Also see the VERY COOL “armored” tarsus, toes and webbing of a Parasitic Jaeger.

Parasitic Jaeger foot showing very rough (almost sharp) scales.

Parasitic Jaeger foot showing very rough (almost sharp) scales.

Parasitic Jaeger (complete with COASST ruler!)

Parasitic Jaeger (complete with COASST ruler!)

Work days have been long and productive, and “days off” are spent doing much of the same thing.

Shore-based surveys of pelagic birds.

Charlie’s team, conducting shore-based surveys of pelagic birds. What are they seeing through those scopes? Look below!

Buller's Shearwater.

Buller’s Shearwater.

Sooty Shearwater.

Sooty Shearwater.

Killer Whale.


Red-necked Phalarope.

Red-necked Phalarope.

"The catch," of Middleton's banding station (one bird per bag).

“The catch,” of Middleton Island’s fall banding station (one bird per bag).

Happy COASSTing!


North Pacific Humpbacks making a comeback

humpback whale 2Have you ever spotted a Humpback whale during one of your surveys? Check out these awesome photos of Humpback whales taken by our very own Hillary Burgess, Marine Debris Program Coordinator! A topic making waves right now is the potential delisting of the Central North Pacific Humpback Whale (CNPHW). Those beautiful, agile creatures that you may have seen on a boat or taking a stroll down the beach are reportedly making a comeback. In the last couple years, two major petitions have been submitted to the respective state governments with the shared goal of declaring the CNPHW a Discrete Population segment (DPS), which would remove them from the endangered species list. The state of Hawaii launched a petition in 2013, through the state’s Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition, and the state of Alaska issued another petition in February of 2014.

While we commonly think of Humpback whales as one species, there are actually sub-populations that vary between regions. Humpback whales’ genetics, behavior, and predation patterns change by region, which has triggered their placement into three distinct “population stocks” of North Pacific Humpback whales: the Central North Pacific stock, the western North Pacific stock, and the Central America stock. This delineation between populations represents the basis behind the recent petitions. In this case, the Central North Pacific stock is the species of interest, predominantly because recent studies have established this population’s behavioral and genetic “fidelity” to particular breeding/feeding regions across generations (State of Alaska Petition). In other words, the health and abundance of the CNPHW is well established, while less is known about the western and Central America stocks.

Humpback whales have been on the endangered species list since December of 1970 – almost half a century! These petitions are attempting to bypass this historical hurdle by declaring the CNPHW a DPS – a claim the groups substantiate by emphasizing the distinct characteristics of these whales (State of Hawaii petition). If the CNPHW is viewed as a DPS and the states’ assertion that the population has recovered enough to the point that extinction is no longer a threat, this species will be delisted! Proving both of these qualities is no easy task. Strides, however, have been made – NOAA Fisheries recently completed a “90-day finding,” in which the whales were surveyed and observed. Based on that finding and the minimum of 5,833 whales found migrating between Alaska and Hawaii, NOAA has declared the petition valid and supported (NOAA News release). NOAA’s initial stamp of approval isn’t quite enough to delist the CNPHW. The next step is for NOAA to develop a status review of the humpback whale on a global scale with the goal of verifying the positive 90-day finding.  With a few more studies and evaluations to go, the Central North Pacific Humpback Whale may officially be delisted and declared stable!

humpback whale 3


Marine mammals on surveys

This has been a big week for COASSTers and marine mammal finds. First, Oregon volunteers Jacqueline and Steve found a dead almost fully intact sea otter washed ashore on their beach. They reported it to the marine mammal stranding network, who performed a necropsy, and determined that this male adolescent otter died of a shark bite!

Sea OtterSea Otter Close Up

A few days, later Washington volunteers Larry and Patti stumbled upon a massive, recently beached Gray Whale. The initial necropsy shows that this 39-foot mature adult female died in a collision with a vessel “smaller than a container ship.”

Gray WhaleGray Whale 2

As a reminder, stranded live or dead marine mammals should be reported to your local Marine Mammal Stranding Network coordinator. For more information on this, see our previous post on reporting.


The 411 on Marine Mammals

An early morning photo from Jan Henault (Chetco Beach, Oregon South) reminded us to remind you that YES, marine mammals should be recorded in the comments section of the COASST data sheet.

Sperm whale at Chetco Point (background) with vertebrae in foreground. Credit: Jan Henault.

Sperm whale at Chetco Point (background) with vertebrae in foreground. Credit: Jan Henault.

More than that, Kirstin Wilkinson, Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator (Washington to Northern California – Alaska is separate) reminds us of the following:

When you find a stranded live or dead marine mammal on the beach, contact the local stranding network coordinator in the area via this map. For calls within Olympic National Park, report to Kristin, 206-526-4747. Sea Otter stranding should be reported to the Sea Otter Stranding hotline, 877-326-8837.

What information is needed?

Please leave your name, phone number, date and time, species, status (dead, alive, injured, etc.) and the exact location, and identify yourself as a COASST volunteer. Please mention if you have taken photos of the animal; photos are very helpful with identification and to assess condition of the carcass/animal.

What will happen?

The local coordinator will determine if a response to the stranding is necessary. If the carcass is in poor condition, there is a chance there will not be a response due to limited information value, resources and personnel. Also, there is a chance the animal has already been reported or responded to. In most circumstances carcasses will be left on the beach and will only be removed if a full necropsy will be performed.

Intervention on live seal and sea lion strandings occurs on a case by case basis. Rehabilitation facility capacity is low and can only accommodate harbor seal pups that have had some type of negative human interaction.

Will I get a call back?

If you would like a call back from the local stranding coordinator, please say so in your voicemail.

What happens to the reports?

A Level A (stranding network) data form will be filled out by the local stranding coordinator for all dead or live stranded marine mammals under NOAA jurisdiction. The Level A will be entered and information included in the national database.