A stranded humpback whale died on a West Seattle beach Sunday morning as hundreds of onlookers watched.

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Hundreds of people flocked to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal in West Seattle on Sunday morning to watch the dramatic — and ultimately heartbreaking — attempt to save a juvenile humpback whale that became stranded just 20 feet from shore.

Angela Wood and Michael Sughrue raced from Renton when they learned from the Orca Network that the approximately 30-foot marine mammal was in trouble. Both sat on a log looking out toward the water and cried silently after learning that efforts to save the cetacean had failed.

“We feel we lost a king of this planet,” said Sughrue.

Humpback Whale

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

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

Appearance: primarily dark gray, with some areas of white

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 (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface

Source: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/

“It’s devastating,” said Wood.

Lynne Barre, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said the stranded mammal was first reported around 8 a.m. during high tide.

Members of West Seattle Seal Sitters, Cascadia Research Collective, NOAA and others arrived shortly afterward to try to help the whale and to keep crowds away.

Jessie Huggins, the stranding coordinator for Cascadia, was among several people who waded out into waist-deep water to pour water and lay wet blankets on the apparently sickly animal in an effort to keep it hydrated and comfortable.

But as the tide went out, the animal perished, said Huggins.

She said the cause of the animal’s death will be investigated. She said officials were unlikely to decide Sunday whether to tow the animal to another location for a full necropsy or whether tissue samples taken from the carcass would suffice.

“There are lots of logistics involved in doing an examination,” said Huggins.

She said the animal was thin and covered with whale lice, which can be an indication it was not in good health when it became stranded.

Barre said it is not uncommon to see humpback whales, or megaptera novaeangliae, in Puget Sound as their population has increased in recent years. Even so, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of NOAA, has recommended that some segments of the Humpback populations in the Northwest Pacific be listed as threatened.

“It’s less unusual than it used to be,” Barre said. “But it’s still unusual to have a live whale stranded.”

Barre said it is not known why whales become stranded, though theories abound.

In June, a 35-foot-long female humpback whale was found dead in Bremerton, and a necropsy did not disclose an obvious cause of death, according to Cascadia.

Six years ago, another whale was towed from West Seattle after its death.