Marine researchers and harbor officials will have to wait and see if a deceased humpback whale that pressed up against the rocky break wall near Pillar Point Harbor on Wednesday washes onshore before determining its age, size, cause of death, or if the carcass is suitable for research or educational use.
Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Sarah van Schagen said Thursday that the whale, which is floating offshore near Pillar Point Harbor north of Half Moon Bay, couldn’t be examined until it washes onshore, if it ever does.
Van Schagen said the Marine Mammal Center is coordinating with several agencies to assess the whale’s status and determine how to respond. Other agencies involved in the effort are the California Academy of Sciences, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Van Schagen said that if possible, a necropsy would be performed depending on how decomposed the carcass is.
“A fresh carcass is better for taking samples,” van Schagen said.
Mike Williams, Pillar Point’s deputy harbormaster, said the whale was about a mile offshore as of Thursday afternoon.
“It was close to the break wall yesterday, but went out with the tide last night,” said Williams, who noted that harbor officials are not authorized to touch or do anything to the whale.
Williams said the Coast Guard has issued a bulletin alerting mariners in the harbor and heading out to sea that there is a dead whale floating offshore.
The Coast Guard is also providing tide and current information to help determine the direction of the whale carcass’ movement, according to van Schagen.
“Markings on a humpback’s fluke, or tail fin, have individual markings and notches, much like a human’s fingerprint,” van Schagen said.
She added that researchers have a catalog of flukes they identify and may be able to match the fluke to those they’ve been looking at over time to determine factors such as where the animal was headed and why it ended up near Half Moon Bay.
Van Schagen emphasized the benefit of performing a necropsy on a fresh carcass.
“We can learn a lot about the animal and the ocean environment. For instance, from its blubber we can perform toxicology studies, and its bones can be used in museum displays,” she said.
Jeff Clark, owner of nearby Mavericks Surf Shop, is concerned for the safety of surfers should the whale decompose in nearby seas.
In a Facebook posting Thursday on the shop’s website, Clark said sharks would be attracted to the area if the dead whale were not removed immediately from the waters surrounding the area’s popular surfing spot.
Curious onlookers were drawn to the break wall and nearby beach over the past two days.
Dominic Bigue of El Granada took his daughter down to the beach by bike around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to catch a glimpse of the whale.
“There was a big crowd of people looking at it,” said Evie Bigue, 10.
“It looked a lot smaller than I thought it would look. I go to this beach and see whales out there swimming all the time but never thought I’d see a dead one washed up on shore here. It’s so sad,” Evie said.