A mysterious type of whale that people rarely encounter washed up Sunday on a California Beach 3.5 hours north of San Francisco. 

The 16-foot-long carcass of the beaked whale, a weird-looking sea creature resembling an oversize dolphin with tiny flippers, was found by a passerby at Mendocino County’s Jug Handle State Natural Reserve near Fort Bragg. A sighting of this species is unusual as the pointy-nosed cetacean spends most of its time in the ocean’s deep waters. 

“It’s so rare for people to see them that it’s a really important stranding,” said Moe Flannery, senior collections manager ornithology and mammalogy at the Cal Academy of Sciences. “They’re not seen very often — alive or dead.”

A team of scientists with the Noyo Center for Marine Science in Fort Brag performed a necropsy in collaboration with the Cal Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

A team of scientists with the Noyo Center for Marine Science in Fort Brag performed a necropsy in collaboration with the Cal Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

Trey Petrey / Noyo Center for Marine Science

A team of scientists with the Noyo Center for Marine Science in Fort Brag performed a necropsy in collaboration with the Cal Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. (You need special permission and permits to collect any parts of a dead marine mammal.)

“I think it’s sometimes very humbling to see these animals washed ashore and to get a really good look at them so close, vs being in the water or seeing it on video,” said Trey Petrey, the Noyo Center’s interpretive facilities manager, who was on site Sunday. “It’s kind of heart-breaking to see them dead but it’s a good experience in terms of anyone interested in marine science to have the opportunity to see a specimen like that.” 

A view of Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, the section of coast where the beaked dolphin washed ashore.

A view of Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, the section of coast where the beaked dolphin washed ashore.

Image via Yelp

The team is investigating the cause of death and any other environmental factors that may have impacted the animal.

“There appears to be some trauma near the jaw but until they look more closely at the skull itself it’s hard to say what that was from,” Petrey said

The scientists collected samples of the tissue, blubber, organs, and skull, and sent them to the Marine Mammal Center for genetic testing that will confirm the species. It could take several weeks to complete the analysis.

“This carcass was particularly fresh so all the samples will be analysed and they will also go into National Marine Mammal Tissue bank,” Flannery said. “The bones will be a catalog specimen in the Cal Academy’s collection and available to researchers around the world.”

A rare beaked whale washed up at Mendocino County’s Jug Handle State Natural Reserve near Fort Bragg on May 15.

A rare beaked whale washed up at Mendocino County’s Jug Handle State Natural Reserve near Fort Bragg on May 15.

Trey Petrey / Noyo Center for Marine Science

There are several species of beaked whales, up to two dozen by some counts, and Flannery said this specimen is likely a Hubb’s or a Stejneger’s beaked whale. 

Beaked whales are known for their ability to dive deeper and stay underwater longer than any other marine mammal. Because these whales spend so much time underwater, traveling as deep as 10,000 feet below the surface to forage for food, they are poorly understood by scientists. A 2020 New York Times article reported on a paper documenting a 3-hour, 42-minute dive by a Cuvier’s beaked whale and concluded, “Scientists still don’t know how the marine mammals go so long without air.

There are several species of beaked whales; analysis is underway to  determine what species the whale found in Mendocino County is.

There are several species of beaked whales; analysis is underway to  determine what species the whale found in Mendocino County is.

Trey Petrey / Noyo Center for Marine Science

As part of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and under a license in partnership with California Academy of Sciences, the Noyo Center for Marine Science responds to deceased Marine Mammals on the Mendocino Coast, from the Gualala to Rockport, and can be reached at 707-813-7925. The Marine Mammal Center in Marin County is the network organization responsible for responding to all live marine mammals in distress from San Luis Obispo to Rockport, and can be reached at 415-289-SEAL. The Stranding Network coordinates emergency responses to sick, injured, entangled or dead seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, and whales.



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