IT'S BECOMING a familiar spectacle around here: A ship steams into port with a once-magnificent fin whale wrapped around its bulbous bow floats, like a deer on a pickup hood. Oct. 2, the tanker New York chugged into Cherry Point with a full load of crude and a 60-foot whale for a hood ornament. It was the third dead fin whale borne into a Northwest port in two months, following one in Portland on Sept. 2 and one in Seattle in August; another rode the bow of a cruise ship into Vancouver in 1999. National Marine Fisheries Service spokesperson Brian Gorman calls this streak "unprecedented." Indeed, it appears to match all the known fin-whale rammings in this region's waters in the previous two decades. And it presents an elusive and ominous mystery.
At up to 85 feet long, fin whales, a.k.a. finbacks, are the biggest animals on the planet after their blue-whale cousins. They're a designated endangered species; experts guesstimate that 100,000 survive worldwide, but because finbacks are deepwater roamers, no one really knows. "We don't know how many are struck but not attached" to ships' bows, notes Gorman. Nor why so many have shown up lately, or what's actually killing them.
Investigators concluded last week that the Portland finback died sometime before if got rammed because they found no sign of hemorrhaging at the collision points. And they concluded that killer whales were the culprits because its tongue and lips—the parts the orcas eat, because they aren't buried in blubber—were torn away. But even this may not be conclusive. Orcas will gladly scavenge easy pickings; they were known to chew on the catches lashed to the sides of whaling ships, though it's less likely they'd be able to snag a tongue sailing past at 20 knots on a modern ship's bow.
Authorities deemed the Seattle finback too far gone to determine cause of death. Although autopsy results weren't in yet for the Cherry Point victim, that didn't stop the tanker's captain from reporting, according to an e-mail sent to the state Department of Ecology, that "on-scene observers speculate that the whale was probably already dead when the tanker hit it."
How could they know that? "Their lawyers told them," jokes Ken Balcomb, the Center for Whale Research's senior scientist. Balcomb and the Orca Conservancy's Fred Felleman suggest another possible explanation: More fin whales are getting drawn here from the open ocean by an upsurge in the krill they eat, triggered in turn by a climatic cycle called the North Pacific oscillation. That means they're crossing more shipping lanes and getting hit more often. Felleman also sees other, possibly complementary explanations: As ships get faster and quieter, and more numerous, whales have a harder time avoiding them. Or because mate-seeking fin whales broadcast their intentions across long distances by low-pitched rumbles, "I wouldn't be surprised if the sound of engines attracts them." Or perhaps the ambient roar of so many ships, not to mention the odd Navy bomb or sonar blast, overwhelms the whales, and they don't hear ships coming.
Balcomb considers such sonic explanations unlikely: "There's been a lot of shipping for a long time. I don't think we've reached a threshold where every [animal] is getting lost in the noise."
But some authorities suspect that's what's happening in the North Atlantic, where rammings and propeller gashes regularly kill whales. These are the leading cause of death for perilously endangered Atlantic right whales, but other species have also been hit and scooped up on ships' bows: blue whales, humpbacks, minkes—and fin whales.
SPEAKING OF FINI . . .
This installment is the last for the Environment column. Seattle Weekly's new editors have confronted a logorrhea of anchored columns and decided to trim some—and this one's a sensible place to start. A biweekly column's an awkward fit, and the sort of issues this one has considered can be covered just as well in regular stories. I intend to write plenty of them, and I don't believe this change signals any diminished commitment to environmental coverage. It's been fun. Later.