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Monitoring life and death in Whidbey waters

Susan Berta, Steve Holmes, Sandy Dupernell and Jan Holmes prepare to package a dead Dall’s porpoise before wheelbarrowing it up Ledgewood Beach. - Susan Mador
Susan Berta, Steve Holmes, Sandy Dupernell and Jan Holmes prepare to package a dead Dall’s porpoise before wheelbarrowing it up Ledgewood Beach.
— image credit: Susan Mador

A Dall’s porpoise lies dead on Ledgewood Beach. No cuts from propellars or bite marks slice the marine mammal’s black-and-white skin. Blood oozes from one eye; rake marks crosshatch the tail. The skin on the animal’s belly has flaked off.

Sandy Dupernell and Susan Berta examine the porpoise carefully but can’t see any injuries that could be a cause of death.

“None of the injuries I see are serious enough to be fatal,” Dupernell says. Berta agrees, “The injuries look relatively minor.”

They take numerous pictures with digital cameras and examine the animal from nose to tail.

Dupernell opens the mouth to check the teeth. “It’s gurgling. I hope it doesn’t blow,” she said.

Volunteers join Stranding Network

Dupernell and Berta are Island County Beach Watchers and members of National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Marine Mammal Stranding Network. When wounded or dead marine mammals are reported, they and others respond. Beach Watchers and Orca Network coordinated stranding training to assist wildlife biologist Matt Klope, who taught the training course. Klope has been working strandings for 20 years; 13 on Whidbey. Klope said the training focused on marine mammal identification, what forms to fill out and what field equipment to carry. Klope said the training also emphasized safety.

“Human safety is the first consideration at a stranding — particularly if the animal is alive,” Klope said. He explains that if an animal is stranded on a beach, it’s probably sick or wounded and “extremely dangerous.” Since Easter weekend, when the Stranding Network started, volunteers have responded to six strandings: three harbor seals, two of which were on West Beach; a live sea lion at Rocky Point which later died; a dead sea lion on Ledgewood Beach; and the Dall’s porpoise last Thursday.

While Dupernell and Berta measured the porpoise they discussed another recent stranding.

The day before, Dupernell had responded to call about a dead harbor seal on West Beach. “It was totally unmarked, but bleeding from the eyes, nose and mouth,” she said.

“No researchers have time or money to respond to every stranding all over Puget Sound. Volunteers collect valuable information on marine mammals,” Berta said. She points out that National Marine Fisheries Services spent half of its budget during two orcas strandings on the Dungeness Spit earlier this year.

Dupernell said every stranding she goes to prompts new questions about marine mammals. At every stranding she learns more tools to add to her stranding backpack. “I based mine on what Matt Klope carries,” she said, “but I’m always adding something.”

Dupernell’s stranding backpack contains: a digital camera; plastic bags and gloves; a flashlight; rain gear; measuring tape; survey tape; an ax, a hunting knife and a sharpener; paint, in case tides wash an animal off the beach and re-strands it; Vick’s Vapor Rub to block odors; snacks for volunteers who may be on the beach for some time; Lysol cleaner and towels; and her stranding book with everything that needs to be observed and recorded. This stranding she decided a cell phone would be good.

Berta said a stranding protocol is being established and she hopes more volunteer training will be coming soon.

Back on the beach

The porpoise that washed up Thursday is a “specimen quality,” meaning its body does not have missing limbs or major structural damage. Brad Hanson, a researcher in Seattle, has requested the body. Berta, Dupernell and Jan Holmes, another Beach Watcher and Stranding Network member, discuss what to do. The body needs to be moved up past the tide line and be protected from scavengers.

At one point, they try hauling the porpoise up the beach. But the load is too heavy and the beach is too rocky. Holmes goes to her Ledgewood home to find reinforcements; she returns with her husband Steve, a wheelbarrow and a truck.

The four sheath the porpoise in plastic garbage bags and wrestle it into the wheelbarrow. While Steve Holmes pushes the wheelbarrow around rocks and driftwood, Jan Holmes, Berta and Dupernell hold the porpoise steady. Then all four manhandle the unwieldy package into the truck bed for a ride to Berta’s home.

“It’s a fascinating experience and good exercise,” Dupernell said of the Stranding Network activities.

“Until Rosie (a gray whale that washed up on Whidbey), I didn’t know how I would react to digging in a dead animal,” Berta reflects. “I was fine.” Beach Watchers and other volunteers salvaged the whale’s bones and today Rosie’s skeleton hangs in Coupeville’s Wharf.

Brad Hanson of National Marine Fisheries Service picked up the porpoise Saturday evening. It had been on Berta’s yard, covered by a tarp that was weighted with rocks.

Berta says NMFS will put the body in a freezer and have students study stomach contents and take blubber samples. Although NMFS doesn’t have the money to fund toxin tests, Berta hopes at some point they measure toxins like PCBs. “Then maybe they can compare those levels to what has been measured in orcas and other marine mammals,” she said.

Matt Klope would have to request that NMFS return the porpoise’s skeleton at some point.

“Beach Watchers can always use another project,” Berta laughed.

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