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Team from UAS leads local volunteers in whale necropsy effort near Sitka

The group spent about five and a half hours ... performing a necropsy, with a main goal to determine cause of death

Sitka, Alaska

Date of Press Release: March 19, 2021

On 18 March 2020 a group of volunteers from the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network performed a necropsy on a humpback whale that washed up on southern end of Kruzof Island, outside of Sitka. The Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network has a regional coordinator with NOAA fisheries based in Juneau. When they get a call, they alert the local coordinator in that area.

Dr. Lauren Wild, a professor with the Fisheries Technology department at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), is the local volunteer coordinator of the stranding network here in Sitka, having recently taken over for Jan Straley, a whale biologist and professor at UAS Sitka who led the group for many decades. This means if a call comes in about a dead whale or pinniped around Sitka, the NOAA stranding folks in Juneau will get in touch with Lauren and if there is an opportunity to respond, she will organize a group of local volunteers. If the animal is a pinniped or sea otter it is our policy to let the Sitka Tribe of Alaska know as well.

On Sunday, March 14 the US Coast Guard spotted the dead humpback whale and called it in to the NOAA Fisheries Stranding network coordinator in Juneau. Dr. Ellen Chenoweth of UAS was able to get out that afternoon on a boat with a drone operator, Joshua Houston of Sitka, to collect imaging of the whale. The weather deteriorated by Monday and a necropsy team was organized for Thursday, March 18. The US Coast Guard volunteered to drop a group of six volunteers on the beach from air station Sitka, and four additional volunteers came out by boat to help as well.

Lauren Wild led the volunteer group consisting of:

  • Ellen Chenoweth, UAS Sitka & UAF BLaST program
  • Ted Hasty, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement (provided bear protection)
  • Stacy Golden, Sitka School District
  • Pat Swedeen, City of Sitka
  • Josh Houston, JFactory
  • Leigh Engel, Sitka Tribe of Alaska
  • Molly Grear, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Paul Norwood and Brooke Schafer – local stranding network volunteers

The group spent about five and a half hours on the beach on Thursday performing a necropsy, with a main goal to determine cause of death. The whale was cut open and the group looked for signs of trauma, that might include hemorrhaging or bone fractures. The whale was a 47-foot female, in good body condition with average blubber depth, and a full stomach that looked to be comprised of mainly fish remains. Tissue samples were collected from the lungs, heart, liver, stomach, and other organs and will be sent to the Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services and Dr. Kathy Burek for histology and pathology analysis. The findings for cause of death were inconclusive at the time, but tissue samples, data, and footage will be reviewed and analyzed, and a report will come out in the coming months that may help determine cause of death.

Dr. Wild notes, “We did get some great images of the ventral, or underside of the flukes from the drone images on Sunday, but as of today have been unable to match the whale’s flukes to our database, but are still working on that. We will also note that this is a fairly unusual event; the last humpback whale that washed up in Sitka Sound was in 2016 I believe, so it was a unique opportunity to have a fairly freshly dead whale wash up in an area that was accessible, and we had a good weather window to get out there.”

If people see a dead marine mammal, or a stranded animal that is still alive, they should call the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline: (877) 925-7773.


UAS Sitka houses the stranding network equipment and provides supplies to volunteers.

Special thanks to the US Coast Guard for their generosity in collaborating with NOAA Fisheries to bring volunteers to the site. The beach the whale was on is pretty hard to get to by boat, and so it requires a bit of a hike to access from a better anchorage, and we wouldn’t have been able to get the amount of gear and equipment needed out there if we hadn’t been dropped off by the coast guard in one of their helicopters.

Many thanks to Dennis Rogers of Petersburg who took Ellen and Josh out on his vessel, the Northern Song, to collect the initial footage of the animal.

Many thanks to the volunteers that donated their time, and some raingear that had to get thrown away, to help with the effort.

Finally, the UAF Biomedical Learning and Student Training program funded the drone and imaging work done during the necropsy for future University of Alaska educational programs.

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Press Release Contact

Keni Campbell
University of Alaska Southeast
(907) 796-6509