Coastal Communities and Ocean Roadkill

A few weeks ago, I visited a beach on the north Oregon coast where the skeletal remains of a shipwreck lie buried in the sand. The ship’s hull stands 30 feet tall, visible at long distances from both ends of the beach. The rest of the ship’s body is dotted behind the hull like vertebrae, the rusty metal that once kept this vessel buoyant sticking just a foot or two above the sand. 

While this is an impressive – and spooky – sight, I did not visit this beach looking for a decaying ship. I was in search of another body, one made of flesh and bone rather than wood and steel. 

Although eerie and arresting, this shipwreck wasn’t ultimately the skeleton I was looking for. (Both photos by yours truly.)

In January, reports of beached whales in several locations along thel Oregon coast made the news. In total, four whales – all dead – were discovered over a period of two weeks; three gray whales and one sperm whale.

In and of itself, a carcass on a beach isn’t that strange: plenty of interesting stuff washes onto coastlines every year thanks to the ocean’s circulating currents. It’s only natural that something as large as a whale turns up every once in a while. 

What’s odder, and more concerning, is that the number of dead whales found on the west and east coasts of the United States has been growing. 

Since 2017, 159 dead humpback whales and 97 dead North Atlantic right whales have been reported in rural and urban areas all along the east coast. Since 2019, 307 dead gray whales have been reported along a similarly wide range up-and-down the west coast. 

Whale death is normal – all that lives will eventually die (no, duh) – but these numbers are high enough that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared “unusual mortality events” for all three whale species. The agency defines an unusual mortality event as a “significant die-off of any marine mammal population” that demands “immediate response.”

For rural coastal communities, this is very bad news. A healthy marine ecosystem relies on healthy marine mammals. 

Whales help fertilize the ocean through their poop(!), according to reporting from Scientific American. They share the fecal wealth throughout the ocean during their long trips around the globe, and the nutrients they pass can make the areas they swim through healthier. For rural communities that rely on fishing as a source of food and income, a healthy ecosystem means more fish, which is good for business. Without whales, everyone suffers. 

Whales are still recovering from extreme hunting that drove several whale species to near extinction. The North Atlantic right whale, one of the three species currently experiencing unusual mortality, is endangered with less than 350 members alive on earth. Losing 97 of them over seven years is significant. 

The body I was looking for wasn’t one of those three whale species. I was in search of another whale with a prehistoric, boxy head and a skinny lower jaw: a sperm whale, also endangered. 

A beached whale is not hard to find, if you’re paying attention. A large dark mass protruding from the sand is all you really need to look for. The search is made even easier when a crowd of people are already around it, poking at its flaking skin and stepping on its protruding ribs. 

Interactions with humans are a driving cause of whale death, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. More specifically, whale interactions with human-created disturbances in the ocean like trash, fishing gear, or ships. More recently, environmental groups have accused offshore wind development (research about this disturbance is still in the works). 

For a whale, getting hit by a ship is quite common. On the west coast alone, an estimated 80 whales are hit every year, according to researchers. Many large transport ships use routes that cut right through vital whale habitat.

When I saw the sperm whale, it had already been out of the ocean for a month and had been dead even longer, so it was in a pretty haggard state by the time I joined the gawking crowd. At that stage of decomposition, imagining what it might have looked like before death was difficult. But what was still noticeable were the gashes that stretched across its flank. This whale had been killed by a ship, an autopsy confirmed. Just one more piece of ocean roadkill.

The whale’s body now serves as another tourist attraction on a beach famous for wreckage. The silhouette of the shipwreck can be seen a few hundred yards away from the sperm whale. Less than a week after it was found, another dead whale showed up on the same stretch of beach, a baby gray whale 12 feet long. No lacerations this time – scientists said it “failed to thrive,” i.e., survival is tough during childhood, especially in the ocean. 

Because of its smaller size, officials were able to remove the gray whale. The sperm whale, which was estimated to be 40,000 pounds, will be left to decompose on the beach.

Sometime in the future, the whale’s vertebrae might dot the sand like the ship, whose spine is on display a few hundred yards away. These bones may outlive the species from which they came, at the rate we’re going.

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