Author: Sean

The Whale’s Life: A Case of “once-in-a-lifetime”

The Whale’s Life: A Case of “once-in-a-lifetime”

Gray whales continue to wash up dead and emaciated, but causes remain elusive. Is it global warming, ocean acidification, pollution—or all three?

In the winter of 2009, a gray whale was found stranded on the beach at South Point in Long Island, New York. It was an old case—a case of “once-in-a-lifetime,” in the words of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—and the news was not good. No one had ever seen a gray whale stranded before; the ship’s captain was not optimistic. The whale itself was not a particularly unusual whale to find stranded on Long Island beaches, however. A NOAA satellite image showed that by 2008, an average of four gray whales were stranded at South Point each winter. Some of these whales were small, some big, some very old; none was considered particularly rare.

But when word of the whale’s existence reached the media, the reaction was unprecedented. One newspaper ran a photograph of the whale—the first photo of a gray whale alive in the open ocean since 1973—and quoted a veterinarian, asserting that the animal was “very ill,” “not the whale that I knew as a veterinarian,” and should be euthanized. At the time, NOAA researchers were already in the process of examining the whale’s body, in case a veterinarian was right. By then, several other media outlets had also been following the case. A photograph was published in the Washington Post, and a photo was featured in the New York Times. The NOAA scientists were in a meeting when this news broke: “At least one animal has been stranded and died,” the NOAA’s head of the Gulf of Maine Marine Mammal Stranding Network, John Collins, told the NOAA’s newsroom. He mentioned that the whale in the photograph “was part of the larger gray whale population that is located in the gulf.”

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