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A Whale of a Mess

"A strange bit of irony hit home for U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Langley, this week when a dead gray whale washed up on his Saratoga Road beach Friday evening.The adult male gray had been floating dead near Camano Island and in the Saratoga Passage for about a week before making landfall in front of the Log Castle Bed and Breakfast, which Metcalf and his wife, Norma, own.Metcalf was a vocal opponent of the Makah Indian tribe's gray whale hunt last year, during which tribe members managed to kill one whale.Norma Metcalf, who was home Friday, said the whale floated onto the beach so close to their home that it was practically in the living room. Approximately 40 feet long, the whale settled against a bulkhead separating the Log Castle from the water. By Tuesday afternoon, the National Marine Fisheries Service - the agency responsible for investigating whale deaths - had not yet collected tissue samples from the beast. Even with those samples, said Brent Norberg, an NMFS biologist, it will be difficult to come up with a cause of death.Unless there is obvious external trauma, it's difficult to find out what happened, Norberg said.Removing the whale carcass is one of the major concerns in any beaching. Individual landowners, whether they be private citizens or public agencies, are responsible for the disposal of the marine life that washes onto their beach. Norberg said he will try to find some way to assist the Metcalfs in removing the carcass. Last year, personnel from NAS Whidbey removed a whale carcass from Holmes Harbor, then buried on Navy property in Oak Harbor.Tissue samples are next to useless unless taken within hours of a whale's death, Norberg said, because traces of disease usually disappear quickly as the animal decomposes. The NMFS first received a report of the dead whale from Camano Island fishermen early last Thursday.The animal starts cooking from the inside out from the time of death, he said.Last year, the NMFS recorded more gray whale beachings from Mexico to Alaska than in any previous year. A total of 273 whales floated into land in 1999, about a dozen of those in Puget Sound. Much of that kill-off is to be expected, Norberg said, since the gray whale population is now estimated to be at or above pre-whaling levels. Of the 25,000-plus animals living in the Eastern Pacific region, Norberg said his agency expects between 800 and 1,200 deaths annually.NMFS biologists were unable to find conclusive evidence in last year's whale deaths that point to man-made killers, such as toxic chemicals or pollution. Twenty-eight whales beached on Washington's coastline last year, including two that found their way to South Whidbey shores. The vast majority of those animals were dead long before reaching shore.Norberg said it is likely that this week's whale and many others that have floated ashore in the spring died of starvation. Gray whales pass Washington each spring on their way from California to feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Most have eaten little for months, spending their time breeding, calving, and swimming along their migration route. Some hunger-weakened whales swim into Puget Sound during the migration to search for food, Norberg said."

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