To hear the great whoosh of air and see the spray accompanying it as a gray whale exhales is a rare and special experience.
It’s one I had two decades ago along the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Snow Creek east of Neah Bay.
Whales are mammals, like us, and air breathers.
The one pictured here, named Gunther by Mario Rivera and Stefanie Worwag, is 40 feet long, an adult who took his last breath earlier this month. He died of starvation and washed ashore about 3 miles from their home in Port Hadlock.
The carcass was towed to the couple’s waterfront property, where a necropsy took place. It revealed eel grasses and a couple of small pieces of plastic in his stomach — not enough plastic to be problematic.
Rivera and Worwag are members of the West Coast region’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which responds to strandings throughout Washington, Oregon and California.
Rivera describes the grasses as “desperation feeding,” not a diet to sustain the 25- to 30-ton creature.
At least 167 grays have died this year on the West Coast, including Canada and Mexico. Those are the ones that wash ashore.
John Calambokidis with Olympia-based Cascadia Research, says “90% that die never come ashore.”
Depending on where they’re found, they can be left to decompose or be buried.
Once endangered, gray whale numbers are estimated at about 27,000 according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
They are among the great migrators, with the Pacific grays swimming between Alaska and Mexico.
Gunther’s death presented the problem of disposal and an appeal. Would anyone take the carcass?
Burying a gray whale requires heavy equipment. It’s costly towing it out to sea — and blowing it up, as was done in Florence, Oregon, in 1970, had unintended consequences. Rotting whale meat showered down on cars and onlookers. The pieces were rounded up and buried.
Rivera and Worwag volunteered their secluded beach for Gunther. It looks out toward Indian and Marrowstone islands. From it they often see a pair of nesting eagles and a sea otter.
The beach is down a steep embankment with only one close-by neighbor, who Rivera says was fine with the decomposition plan.
Now Gunther’s carcass is slowly collapsing and decaying, aided by the application of lime — and beehives of maggots. Its ribs are protruding. The odor is not that pungent — less so than many a wet dog.
It’s likely to take all year for Gunther to be stripped down to a skeleton.
Meanwhile, Worwag says, “the maggots are doing a good job.”