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Humpback whale washes ashore, dies in White Rock, B.C.

Jun 12. 12

METRO VANCOUVER - The juvenile humpback whale that beached itself in White Rock this morning has died, the Fisheries and Oceans department has confirmed.

On a grey, misty Tuesday, the long stretch of sand was full with hundreds of people who arrived to get a look at the massive mammal, about 150 metres offshore near Marine Drive and Parker Street.

Around 6:30 a.m., bystanders gathered near the whale on White Rock Beach east of the pier. Many attempted to help the whale back into the water, and later, waited for the authorities to pronounce it dead.

The whale, about ten metres long, was alive and breathing when the fisheries department was notified around 5:15 a.m. Staff from the Vancouver Aquarium and the fisheries department also arrived to assess the animal, and Lindsaye Akhurst, manager of the aquarium's marine mammal rescue centre, said the whale is no more than three years old.

Akhurst rushed to the beach after receiving reports earlier than morning that the whale had washed ashore and was alive. An aquarium veterinarian was first on scene to confirm the whale was dead, she said.

It died around 6:30 a.m. The area was cordoned off with police tape and flowers were placed on its head. Three female members of the Semiahmoo first nation drummed and sang to send the whale on its way.

"Unfortunately it passed away. It was in very poor shape," said government marine mammal coordinator Paul Cottrell.

The whale had rope and possibly fishing net caught in its baleen and in its mouth. Several deep gashes are visible around the fluke, or tail fin.

In addition to possible injuries from the suspected fishing gear, the whale appears to be underweight.

"It didn't just wash ashore and die - this has been a lengthy process," Akhurst said.

Scientists are now working to identify the animal and its origin by using the pattern on its fluke, which have unique markings and are documented by marine scientists along the Pacific coast. The sex of the whale has not been confirmed.

Lance Barrett-Lennard, the aquarium's marine mammal expert, arrived to take tissue samples and swabs at 11 a.m.

Barrett-Lennardsaid that while grey whales sometimes come ashore this is the first humpack to become beached in Metro Vancouver in memory.

He said it is possible the nylon line that had become entangled around the whale may have prevented it from feeding properly for months.

He added humpbacks migrate from BC to Mexico and Hawaii so it's difficult to say where this whale picked it up. He could not identify the line and urged people not to jump to the conclusion it is fishing gear.

As the tide began lapping at the whale's tail fluke, police odered the public to leave the immediate area.

The Canadian Coast Guard is expected to arrive at White Rock Beach by hovercraft to tow the whale to another location where it can be examined further and tests done. High tide is 1:50 p.m.

Humpbacks are often seen near coast lines, feeding on krill, plankton and small shrimp, and use Canadian water primarily for feeding.

Patrick Blake, who lives across from White Rock's east beach, said he has seen a whale circling around Semiahmoo Bay since Sunday.

He said he at first thought he was seeing a sea lion, but then realized it was a whale, likely one in distress.

"To see this this morning blew me away," he said, pointing to the crowd around the humpback.

Marilyn Scott has lived two blocks away since 1978 but this is the first time she has seen a whale wash ashore.

"Such a shame," she said. "I have never seen anything like that. Unfortunately it has to be dead."

Joe Radovich of Cloverdale took his 10-year-old son, Liam, to see the whale instead of to school, since he would have been studying current

events anyway.

He stood close to the whale and talked like a TV news reporter doing a "stand-up" report while his dad operated the video camera.

"We think he's been dragging that fishing line a long time," Liam said. "He was exhausted and eventually washed up."

Kerry Peters, a teacher at White Rock Elementary School, bundled up her Grade 4 class and walked to the beach when they heard about the whale.

She said the event relates to marine ecology, human impact on the oceans, and aboriginal culture.

"It's a great opportunity," she said

While humpbacks are becoming more common on the Pacific coast, the recovering whale population is still considered to be a threatened species, although there have recently been attempts to have it designated as "special concern" under the federal Species At Risk Act.

Humpback numbers were depleted by commercial whaling, which was outlawed in 1966.

A recent federal study showed the humpback population in B.C. water at 2,145 not including year-old calves, and increasing at around 4 per cent per year.

Humpbacks are "not super common in inshore waters. They're becoming more frequent, which is great. But we're seeing more interactions with fishing gear as well," Cottrell said.

The most common threat to the humpback today is depletion of habitats and breeding grounds, noise disturbance, getting struck by boats and entanglement in fishing gear.

Humpbacks are powerful swimmers, with flippers that can grow up to a third of the whale's body length.

They can grow up to 19 metres long and weigh 36 metric tons - the size of a school bus, according to the National Geographic.

Humpback whales are also known for their singing - howls and cries they use to communicate with potential mates and other whales.

With files from Larry Pynn and Jeff Beamish, Vancouver Sun

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