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Whale tale: Deceased humpback will hang from Foss Waterway Seaport trusses

VIDEO: A dead whale is recovered and taken to Gig Harbor farm

A yearling humpback will be cut up, the meaty bones composted, and reassembled for the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma.
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A yearling humpback will be cut up, the meaty bones composted, and reassembled for the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma.

Wearing a nautical yellow rain slicker, paint-stained jeans, hiking boots and brown rubber gloves, Rus Higley arrived Thursday morning at the Thea Foss Waterway, ready to get stinky.

And boy did he.

Standing in a 40-foot dump trailer next to a 23-foot humpback whale, Higley maneuvered around the bloated carcass. The smell of the dead yearling permeated the air, forcing people standing downwind to hold their noses.

This probably wasn’t how they foresaw themselves spending the morning of Christmas Eve.

Higley, a marine biology and oceanography instructor, helped secure the female whale for the roughly 40-minute ride from Tacoma to a farm in Gig Harbor where it will be temporarily buried.

After scientists complete a necropsy Saturday, volunteers will cut the whale into manageable pieces and bury it under a pile of horse manure.

The whale will be exhumed in about six months and the remains carted once again across the Tacoma Narrows to its final resting place at the Foss Waterway Seaport.

That is where a team of marine biologists, Seaport volunteers and others will reassemble the skeleton and hang it from the Seaport’s historic trusses.

“I am sad that a whale that is just 1-year-old has died for whatever reason,” said Jan Adams, the Seaport’s director of education. “But I think it’s very cool now that this whale can come as a skeleton to the Seaport and live on in a way.”

Adams, who spoke to The News Tribune from Michigan where she’s on vacation, is already thinking about educational programs involving the whale.

“I’ve got a lot of research to do now,” she said. “I think this is going to be a really great learning experience.”

Humpbacks, they’re not incredibly rare in Puget Sound, but you’re not going to guarantee a sighting of them.

Rus Higley, manager Highline College Marine Science and Technology Center

The Seaport has coveted a whale since 2010 when a gray whale skeleton was reassembled in its Tacoma waterfront building by a group of volunteers from Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center. Higley, who manages the marine center at the Des Moines school, was involved in that process.

After that experience, Adams went through the steps to get federal approval to acquire mammals that wash up on Washington shorelines. She also spread word of the Seaport’s interest in a whale among the network of marine biologists and scientists who respond to stranded mammals.

The Seaport already has a harbor seal and harbor porpoise skeletons and an 18-foot fin whale skull. The complete skeleton of an endangered humpback is the final puzzle piece of the nonprofit’s collection.

The Seaport offered 22 marine and environmental science-based programs for students this year. Students enrolled in the marine programs saw humpback whales in Puget Sound this summer, Adams said.

It’s not uncommon for humpback whales to make their way into Puget Sound, but it’s also not a regular occurrence, said Higley, who’s an instructor at both Highline and the University of Washington Tacoma.

“Humpbacks, they’re not incredibly rare in Puget Sound, but you’re not going to guarantee a sighting of them,” he said. “They migrate from Alaska to Hawaii, but occasionally some turn in and hang out (in Puget Sound). Sometimes they come in and die.”

That’s what happened to the yearling. There were no obvious signs of trauma, so Higley hopes the necropsy will reveal why the whale died.

It was Dec. 18 when people reported the whale washed up on state-owned tidelands about a mile north of the opening to Gig Harbor.

I think this is going to be a really great learning experience.

Jan Adams, Foss Waterway Seaport director of education

News quickly made its way to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and state Department of Fish and Wildlife. From there, a flurry of communication ensued between a network of organizations and volunteers that make up the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Cascadia Research Collective, a nonprofit scientific and education organization based in Olympia, responded and took samples from the whale’s blubber. Scientists from the Collective will perform Saturday’s necropsy.

Once scientists are done with a mammal, they are left to dispose of the carcass. The whale’s proximity to Tacoma made the Seaport an ideal recipient of the skeleton, Adams said.

On Wednesday, five days after the washed-up whale was first reported, Higley and a team of volunteers were aboard Sea 3, a former Coast Guard research vessel, heading from the Thea Foss Waterway to the peninsula.

Two hours later, Capt. Vernon Moore had the whale secured to the stern of the 39-foot vessel heading back to Commencement Bay.

On Thursday morning, volunteers hoisted the whale from the water into the waiting truck at Commencement Bay Marine Services. The company offered dock space for the whale to stay overnight and freed up its boat lift to hoist the whale into the truck. Transport back to Gig Harbor was provided by nearby Darling Ingredients.

“I am so thrilled with the way our partners and their support teams stepped up,” Adams said, acknowledging the short notice and Christmas holiday. “I will be forever grateful. I would have hated to pass up this experience.”

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley

Humpback whales

Weight: 25 to 40 tons (50,000 to 80,000 pounds); newborns weigh about 1 ton (2,000 pounds)

Length: Up to 60 feet, with females larger than males; newborns are about 15 feet

Lifespan: About 50 years

Diet: Tiny crustaceans (mostly krill), plankton and small fish; they can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food per day

Behavior: Breaching or slapping the surface

Interesting info: Humpback whales live in all major oceans from the equator to subpolar latitudes. Humpback populations spend their summers in cooler northern waters and migrate thousands of miles in the winter to subtropical and tropical waters to give birth. One of the more studied routes is between Alaska and Hawaii, where humpbacks have made the 3,000 mile trip in 36 days. Humpbacks have remained an endangered species since 1970.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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