Beached whale found on Sunset State Beach near Watsonville

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A humpback whale washed ashore at Sunset State Beach near Watsonville early Friday. (Luci Woodley — Contributed)

By Calvin Men, Santa Cruz Sentinel

WATSONVILLE >> A humpback whale about the size of a minivan washed ashore on Sunset State Beach near Watsonville early Friday morning.

Luci Woodley, who lives on the bluffs above Sunset State Beach, said she saw the whale floating offshore Thursday and awoke to find it beached around 7:30 a.m. Friday.

She rushed to see if it was still alive but the animal was not moving.

“I guess this happens but I’ve never seen a whale out here,” she said. “He’s just really not moving out to sea because of the calm conditions (in the water). So I think it’s going to be a big issue if he rots on the shore.”

John Calambokidis, a research biologist with Cascadia Research based in Olympia, Washington, confirmed the animal was a younger humpback.

Though humpback whales are most abundant off the California coast from April to November during migration, Calambokidis said there is a smaller subset group that would be in the area earlier and it’s not unusual to see the whale. Though most adult humpbacks are in the winter feeding grounds off Mexico and Central America, juvenile humpbacks are known to frequent the Monterey Bay. Calambokidis, who corresponds with local agencies that rescue marine life, said there was a report of a humpback entangled in fishing gear a few weeks back.

“Monterey Bay has often been a feeding area for humpback whales almost year round,” he said.

Calambokidis declined to speculate about why the whale would have died.

“I think a lot more will be learned once it’s examined,” he said.

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A humpback whale washed ashore at Sunset State Beach near Watsonville early Friday. (Luci Woodley — Contributed)

A team from the Long Marine Lab at UC Santa Cruz was dispatched to necropsy the whale to determine the cause of death.

Robin Dunkin, manager for Mammal Stranding Operations at Long Marine Labe, said the animal was a young, immature female about a couple of years old.

“It was pretty decomposed,” said Dunkin, who later added the whale likely died because of a sickness and not through any human interaction. It was decomposed by two or three days, she said.

The team cut up the corpse to help it decompose.

The beaching isn’t new, said Bill Wolcott, State Park Public Safety Superintendent, who added the area usually sees a beached whale every one or two years.

There are no plans to remove the whale from the beach, with plans to let it decay naturally.

“It’s surprising how quickly they’ll start to break down and disappear,” he said, adding that he expected it to be gone within three weeks.

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