No cause of death yet for Kekaha beached whale

KEKAHA — Scientists say the whale calf that washed up on the shores of Kekaha Beach in January appears to be a failure to thrive case, with predators involved.

Kristi West, head of the Marine Mammal Stranding Lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said Thursday that investigations continue into calf blubber but the exact cause of death is still undetermined.

“There was no sign of infectious disease but partially collapsed alveoli in the lung with fluid suggests that the calf did not take adequate breaths to clear lungs,” West said. “Size and spacing of some of the external markings on the body suggest killer whale mouthing which is consistent with sighting reports of killer whales in the islands prior to the stranding.”

The bitten off pectoral fins and other external markings suggest the calf was also preyed on by sharks.

Now, experts are looking into whether nutritional stress was an issue, hoping their study of whale blubber will reveal a possible reason behind the apparent decline in humpback whale numbers in Hawaiian waters during recent years.

While West and her team are busy in the lab, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the January response to the reported calf was a great example of partnership between several agencies and cultural practitioners in the community.

Malia Nobrega-Olivera was one of those cultural practitioners who worked with NOAA and other agencies to respond to the whale.

“What happened is Jamie (Thompton, NOAA) got their response (started), and he contacted one of the practitioners, and they contacted those of us on the Westside,” Nobrega-Olivera said. “We were able to respond in a timely manner. That’s all these different levels of relationships being made.”

According to Nobrega-Olivera, federal agencies are working with cultural practitioners throughout Hawaii to include them in response to stranded marine mammals.

“It’s not just the response that happens there on the beach. Many of us will follow through the necropsy and into the evening and early mornings at times and seeing the whole process through,” Nobrega-Olivera said.

Gerald Hurd, a county lifeguard, led the team of Jet Skis that towed the carcass to Pacific Missile Range Facility for further examination and burial.

PMRF served as the ideal site for the burial as it could provide a secure resting place for the animal that was approximately 350 feet inland and well beyond ocean surge, according to Sara Sexton, a spokesperson for the military facility.

And with all hands on deck, the whale was necropsied and buried.

“Through this partnership, PMRF has assisted many times over the decades with response to marine mammal and sea turtle injuries, entanglements, and strandings,” Sexton said. “Additionally, PMRF biologists report valuable data on monk seals and sea turtles to NOAA which informs their management.”

••• Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or at

  1. Makani B. Howard May 13, 2019 9:25 am Reply

    Thank you for doing a follow up article. It is always nice to read more about what has transpired.

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