Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard Assists with Whale Recovery
The boatyard performed a different kind of haulout last Saturday morning. In a departure from the usual luxurious yachts and recreational vessels, our Travelift was pressed into service to lift a dead gray whale out of Puget Sound.
The slippery task was in good hands with Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard’s veteran Travelift operator Mark Rybin at the controls. But having a decomposing 8,000-pound whale in his slings was definitely a first for him.
“I’ve never been asked to lift out a dead animal before,” said Rybin, who has hauled thousands of boats in his 30 years of experience, after the March 2 haulout. “It was very interesting.”
Interesting to say the least, and likely a bit somber, too, seeing the sad demise of a once-majestic creature. The 28.5-foot young female gray whale was found dead on Feb. 23 in Longbranch, Wash. Since it is illegal for regular citizens to approach and remove mammal carcasses from Puget Sound waters and beaches, NOAA-certified officials were notified.
The 1- to 2-year-old female whale was examined on Feb. 25 by Cascadia Research Collective, the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife and World Vets, with assistance from Seattle Pacific University and the MaST Center from Highline College.
The examination revealed the young gray whale had stranded alive, was emaciated and had experienced an attack by killer whales in recent months, according to Cascadia Research. Photos provided to the Orca Network confirmed the whale was the same gray sighted live in Hale Passage near Gig Harbor on Feb. 18 and in Budd Inlet in Olympia on Feb. 21.
Gray whales are baleen whales feeding mostly on crab larvae and small shrimp found at the edge of kelp beds. The examination of this whale revealed extremely poor body condition with a visible vertebral column and ribcage. Its stomach was full of seaweed and woody debris but no food remains. The recent orca attack was evident from raking marks of killer whale teeth.
The stranding of young, emaciated gray whales in the spring in Washington state is common, said Cascadia Research in a press release. However, this one occurred earlier than usual.
Also atypical are the recent earlier-than-usual sightings of gray whales in our region. These include the over-wintering of two or three gray whales in Puget Sound and the early arrival of one the “Sounders,” a group of whales that returns annually to the northern Puget Sound in the spring to feed around Whidbey Island, reports Cascadia Research.
Recovery of this juvenile whale’s remains was coordinated by the MaST Center, which is the Marine Science and Technology Center at Highline College in Des Moines, Wash., and Seattle Pacific University. The eventual goal is for the skeleton to be on educational display at SPU.
Click here to watch a video explaining Seattle Pacific University’s Whale Skeleton Project.
The boatyard is proud to have been called upon to assist in this endeavor to bring some good out of the death of a whale. Boatyard Manager Hartwell Champagne worked closely with SPU Assistant Professor of English Peter Moe in coordinating the effort.
Moe organized the towing of the whale’s remains from Longbranch to Gig Harbor the night before the haulout. Divers secured buoys around the decomposing body to help keep it afloat in the harbor until the next day, when Mark Rybin and the boatyard team took over.
“I’ve never been asked to lift out a dead animal before.” – Longtime Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard Travelift operator Mark Rybin
“The divers were really instrumental in making it happen,” said Rybin. “They got the slings positioned and then we used the Travelift and our crane to set it into the truck.”
It was that last bit, setting the nearly 30-foot whale into the waiting truck, that was the biggest challenge, he and Champagne both said, with the high sides of the truck complicating matters.
But these experienced guys accomplished it, of course, and Moe and crew drove the whale away to start the next step of its journey: the long process of drying out the skeleton.
“Whale bones have a lot of fluids and oils,” said Champagne, “so the college students will bury the whale in heaps of horse manure to deflesh it for about six months. Then it will dry for another six months to finish leaching out the fluids.”
Professor Moe contacted Champagne after the whale was successfully removed from the truck and interred for the drying-out process.
“Thanks again for your help,” he wrote in an email. “We were able to get the skeleton entirely out of the water on Saturday afternoon and buried in manure. So, now we wait for the manure to do its work.
“The project would not be moving forward with your crew’s help,” he continued. “We greatly appreciate everything you all did for us on Saturday morning.”
You’re welcome, Professor Moe. We were glad to help.