Right whales, © Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA, NOAA permit #15488

Keep a Watchful Eye Out for Marine Mammals

You are driving along a coastal road and think you see a whale splashing around in very shallow waters. What do you do? Report it! Each coastal state has a resource for reporting whale strandings or injured sea life, and having that info handy can save an animal’s life. Here in Alaska, it’s the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network (AMMSN).

Maybe you are asking why it’s important to report these kinds of sightings. Aside from the importance of helping stranded whales and other marine mammals return to the ocean, giving them medical care or transporting them to a rehabilitation center, each stranding gives responders information about the health of these animals’ populations. For example, pathologists identified the measles-like virus that killed more than 1,000 bottlenose dolphins in 2013 by examining stranded dolphins. Here in Alaska, Cook Inlet is 180 miles from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska and Alaska’s coastline, including tidal areas, is 33,904 miles long! So the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network needs all the eyes and reports we can get to respond to strandings and to collect and utilize valuable data from these animals.

Beluga, © Ansgar Walk

A surfacing beluga whale

Why do marine mammals strand? Strandings are important indicators of population health and the health of our marine ecosystems. As mentioned above, disease is a frequent cause of strandings. Other causes are old age, or injury. Killer whales often attempt to trap small whales and dolphins by driving them into shallow water, sometimes getting stranded themselves in the process. Strandings can even be anthropogenic – caused by humans. For example, marine mammals become entangled in fishing nets, other gear and other marine debris. Or, they may have been hit by motorized vessels.

Each spring, summer and early fall, travelers on Alaska’s Seward Highway keep an eye out for Cook Inlet beluga whales, as they are more commonly spotted along the coast in Turnagain Arm. But this spring, the Stranding Network was alerted by a wildlife biologist who got a call from a colleague about what she thought was a beluga, but turned out to be a juvenile humpback whale stranded along the coastal town of Girdwood, Alaska. She contacted another Stranding Network member who is a veterinarian at the Alaska SeaLife Center and they drove to Girdwood to investigate.

While they did not see the whale, what they learned was almost as important. Many of the nearby store owners, visitors and locals in the area had seen or heard reports of the young stranded whale and while they were very concerned for its wellbeing, they did not know who to call. They were provided with Stranding Network numbers to call. I joined the wildlife biologist in the Girdwood area the following day to double check on the juvenile humpback whale sighted. We did not see the whale or hear of any reports of its sighting that day. We hoped that meant it had swum safely back out into Cook Inlet to join other humpbacks in deeper waters.

Wherever you’re located, if you’re headed to the beach, put NOAA’s rescue network contact information in your phone for easy access so you can call if you see injured, entangled or dead whales, dolphins, seals or sea lions in the water or on the beach:

Alaska: 1-877-925-7773
West Coast: 1-866-767-6114
Northeast: 1-866-755-6622
Southeast: 1-877-433-8299
Pacific Islands: 1-888-256-9840

(What about sea turtles? Many regions have different sea turtle response numbers  for each state. Find yours here.)

The most important information to collect is the date, location of stranding (including latitude and longitude if you can), number of animals, and species if possible. Please don’t move or touch the animal, but do take a photo if possible. These can help responders later on. Thanks for keeping an eye out for wildlife that need our help!

Karla Dutton is the Alaska Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife