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Cause Of Juvenile Humpback's Death Will Remain A Mystery

A dead humpback whale that washed ashore in Santa Cruz County will be left to decompose naturally. Scientists were able to take some samples of the marine mammal, but not everything they wanted.

The female, juvenile humpback died at least a few days before it washed up on Manresa State Beach on  Saturday, July 7. Under the hot sun, it’s decomposing quickly on the beach. The whale is missing some of its charcoal-colored skin and white barnacles. It looks flat, almost deflated.

Beachgoers like Lisa Sanguinetti have been visiting the whale.

“Just so sad. You just wonder because it’s such a young whale,” says Sanguinetti.

Scientists cannot determine why this whale died. There are no clear indications on the carcass and it's too decomposed to perform a necropsy.  

A necropsy, or autopsy on an animal, would allow scientists to sample tissue and organs. That would help tell if it died naturally, from disease, or perhaps a ship strike. Teri Sigler responded to the initial call about the dead humpback. She's the Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator at Long Marine Lab. Sigler says not knowing the cause of death is a loss for research.

“Every whale that strands is an opportunity to learn more. Not only about that particular whale but about what's happening out in our Bay,” Sigler says.

Scientists were able to take measurements, which is how they could tell it was a juvenile, and skin and blubber samples. Information will also go into a national database that tracks how many dead whales wash up each year. As far the Monterey Bay goes -

“There are more whales here now than there typically are and we have seen a few more stranded," says Sigler. In May, a gray whale calf also washed up on Manresa State Beach. "But really, we're not seeing a big number of stranded whales this year in particular,” she says.

In some cases, dead whales that wash ashore can be buried on the beach. But that requires heavy equipment and the juvenile humpback stranded below a steep cliff. So the whale will continue to decompose naturally or wash back out to sea.

Erika Mahoney served as news director and reporter at KAZU, leaving the station in March, 2022.