Drift whale on Hesquiaht Beach
by Dianne Ignace and Katie Beach, Tofino
Nearly every morning, Dave Ignace (Mushguy) walks the beaches near his home in Hesquiaht Harbour, keeping an eye out for the constant changes affecting his ancestors' traditional territories. He is used to finding things washed up on the beach, but on April 8, the tide brought in something very surprising. Mushguy discovered a 47 foot sperm whale on the flats on the west end of Hesquiaht Harbour. The whale was fairly fresh, an exciting gift from the sea. In the time of traditional Hesquiaht whalers, a fresh drift whale would have been a cause for celebration and feasting. However, with a waning interest in the consumption of whale, the find was instead a great opportunity for research purposes. Biologists from DFO Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo were notified and arrangements made to do a necropsy in order to discover the cause of death. Whales do periodically wash up on the coast of British Columbia, but what caught everyone's attention this time was that sperm whales are not a common species to find in these waters. DFO's Marine Mammal Incident Coordinator Lisa Spaven explains that "Sperm whales are very deep diving animals and inhabit the waters just off the continental shelf. So when they do die, rarely do they make it all the way to shore". However, according to DFO, this animal was one of several sperm whales to have washed up along North America's coast in the past few months, and this is a mystery worth investigating. The uniqueness of this occurrence was another reason that the Ignace's were quick to report the carcass. "If it's a disease that killed the whale, we worry about the disease spreading to the scavengers of the carcass" said Dianne, noting that eagles have begun to feast on the whale, and wolves will be close behind.
On Saturday, April 12, 2008 a crew of biologists and technicians from DFO and NTC Fisheries came to Hesquiaht Harbour to obtain samples from the adult male whale for analysis. They were welcomed to Hesquiaht First Nations traditional territories by Felix Jackson, a councilor for the Nation. He reminded the visitors that they had been invited into Hesquiaht's homeland to collect important biological data, but to respect the whale and Hesquiaht First Nation's protocols. The crew did some initial measurements of the whale and then began the dirty job of cutting into the body. The necropsy took about six hours and involved cutting through the tough hide and thick blubber to access samples from the muscle and organs such as the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, etc. By the time that visitors from Tofino, Hotsprings, and elsewhere arrived at the scene, they found pools of blood and piles of blubber surrounding the biologists. Many commented on the smell of the giant mammal, but that didn't seem to deter the necropsy crew from crawling into the chest cavity to obtain the samples. By early evening the sampling was complete, and the crew returned to Tofino and Nanaimo to clean up, leaving the whale to decompose naturally.
The results of the necropsy and the precise identification of the cause of death are expected to take up to several months. In the meantime, visitors will be able to catch glimpses of the skeletal remains as it decomposes, but please leave it intact, as the remains belong to the Hesquiaht First Nations and the discoverers Dave and Dianne Ignace.
Dianne Ignace is a resident of Hesquiaht and Katie Beach is a biologist with Uu-a-thluk, the NTC Fisheries.