The decision to euthanize a young humpback whale that washed ashore alive in Waldport this week was one agencies rarely have to make, but scientists say it was the right call.
The beached, 20-foot juvenile was reported early Wednesday morning north of the Alsea River and euthanized by injection on Thursday after rescue attempts failed.
Volunteers with the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network coordinated round-the-clock efforts to care for the whale. But after multiple high tides and several unsuccessful attempts to swim past the surf, the whale remained stranded.
A decision had to be made.
“They’re hard choices,” said Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. “I feel this one was appropriate.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ultimately made the call to euthanize the whale, but in consultation with people on the ground and other experts. They took a number of factors into consideration, including the animal’s age.
It is early in the season for a humpback that young to be fully weaned from its mother’s milk, Mate noted.
The mother may have died or been injured. Or, Mate theorized, food may have been so scarce the mother decided to wean it early. Either way, once the young whale was on the beach, the chance of reuniting it with its mother was unlikely.
“However it got separated from its mother, its chances of survival were remote even without this stranding event,” Mate said. “It was just way too young and small to make it on its own.”
On the beach, it was only suffering, he said.
Deep water supports large whales’ enormous weight. Stranded on land without that support, gravity begins to tear them apart, said Kristin Wilkinson, the Washington state and Oregon stranding coordinator for NOAA’s West Coast Regional Office.
Organs and circulatory systems can begin to collapse. Prolonged exposure can lead to blistered skin and hyperthermia.
Attempts to tow a whale back into water can injure or dislocate the tail or even paralyze the animal. Dredging around a whale to create a channel to deeper water can cause other environmental disruptions.
In 1979, Mate was on the scene after 41 sperm whales stranded on the beach in Florence. At the time, they were not allowed to euthanize the animals.
“If we could have, I would have,” Mate said. “There was no question. They stranded at the highest tide. They were never going to get back in the water and their death was a long and anguished one.”
It took upward of three days for most of the whales to die.
Mate and other researchers were poised to collect samples 20 minutes after each whale died to try to determine why the animals stranded in the first place.
But when they sent these freshly collected samples off for analysis, they were told, “These are tissue samples from an animal that’s been dead for three days.”
For the whales, everything had started to break down well before they finally died.
Since 2015, at least four large whales stranded alive onshore in the Pacific Northwest were able to free themselves, but all of them beached again and died, according to information compiled by NOAA in 2018. Last year, a large gray whale beached near Olympic National Park was able to refloat after several attempts.
Nationwide, an average of eight large whales have stranded alive in recent years. Most die within 24 hours of being stranded, even if they return to deeper water. Only about two a year are ever euthanized.
Each case is different. “It really just depends on the location, the animal’s overall condition, what resources are available, what trained staff are available. ... It’s not a formula,” Wilkinson said.
Reports of marine mammal strandings in general are slightly lower in Oregon than in California or Washington state. Between 2007 and 2016, Oregon had a reported 3,776 strandings of dead and alive animals, most of them sea lions and seals. Whales accounted for only 1% of the stranded animals.
“Most of the time when we get a whale washed up, it’s either dead or almost dead,” said Chris Havel, associate director for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “Getting a young animal that was relatively healthy … that’s an unusual experience for us.”
“It’s a hard thing to witness,” he said.
The young humpback in Waldport had tried to swim past a sandbar into deep water during high tides on Wednesday and Thursday, but every time it oriented itself toward the ocean, it would get pushed back, according to Brittany Blades, the curator of mammals at Oregon Coast Aquarium, who stayed overnight to monitor the whale.
“As the night went on, the whale stranded further on shore due to the strong waves and extremely high tide,” Blades said in a statement.
The group gathered around the whale considered trying to move the whale closer to the water, but decided the plan wasn’t feasible. Given the amount of time the whale had already spent stranded on land, Blades said it was likely the internal organs had already “suffered irreparable damage that is not externally apparent.”
A Washington state veterinarian administered a series of injections to humanely euthanize the whale. The method NOAA follows involves first sedating the animal so it is fully asleep with needles that cause about as much pain as a vaccine shot.
Then, a veterinarian delivers potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Sometimes the whale reacts in these final moments, briefly raising its flippers or tail, a movement referred to as “the last swim.”
“This may be difficult to witness, but if euthanasia is being administered, qualified veterinarians have determined it is the most humane option for the whale,” Wilkinson notes in a fact sheet she compiled about large live whale strandings.
Scientists and researchers will perform a necropsy on the Waldport whale and collect samples. The whale will be buried on the beach near the site of the final stranding.