A gray whale that washed ashore in West Seattle last week had an unusually large amount of man-made debris in its stomach, marine mammal researchers announced Monday.
The 37-foot-long whale had more than 50 gallons of undigested stomach contents, including more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, sweatpants, duct tape, pieces of plastic and a golf ball, according to John Calambokidis of the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective.
“It’s not a very good testament to our stewardship of the marine environment,” Calambokidis said.
The debris, while abundant, represented about 1 percent to 2 percent of the stomach contents, which consisted mostly of algae, he said. There is no sign that it caused the whale’s death.
But it clearly indicates that the whale had tried to feed in urban waterways where it was exposed to debris and contaminants, he said.
Gray whales are filter feeders that feed on the bottom and suck in sediment from shallow waters to strain out small organisms that live there. This feeding process can lead to ingestion of rocks, wood debris and human litter.
This marked the fourth gray whale to die in Puget Sound waters in the past two weeks and the fifth overall in this year’s northern migration of grays from their breeding grounds in Mexico to their feeding grounds in Alaska.
The number of deaths is well below a major mortality event in 1999-2000 when 50 gray whales died in Washington waters.
But the peak period for gray whale deaths in Washington waters is only about half complete, and the rash of strandings is cause for concern among whale researchers.
“I’d say we are concerned, but not alarmed yet,” Calambokidis said.
The latest flurry of strandings began April 4 when a young gray whale was stranded alive in Deer Creek at the northeast end of Oakland Bay in Mason County and died that day. A necropsy of the animal April 5 showed it to be emaciated and malnourished.
Photo identification of the whale revealed it was the same whale spotted in the Nisqually River on March 25.
Three of the four whales to perish in April appeared to be emaciated, and all four appear to be stragglers from the larger gray whale population of nearly 20,000 that typically migrates north past Washington each spring.
April is the time of year when whales that didn’t get enough to eat in their Alaskan feeding grounds may be running low on reserves, whales researchers noted.
To report a marine mammal sighting or stranding, call Cascadia Research at 360-943-7325.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444