Struggling to breathe, a juvenile fin whale washed ashore at Stinson Beach early Monday. The 42-foot-long male weighed roughly 11 tons.

The whale appeared to have taken a beating thrashing around in shallow water. There was also trauma to its right side, which could have come from colliding with a ship. That’s been known to happen here. The fin whale’s only natural enemy is the killer whale (i.e. orca). Photos by Lynn Axelrod

The California Marine Mammal Center based on the Marin Headlands handled the scientific aspects of the death. After a volunteer at 7 a.m. reported a beached whale was dying, the center dispatched a veterinary team to investigate.

The National Park Service had managed to turn the whale so that it was headed back out to sea, but the whale was already dead by the time the veterinary team arrived around 9 a.m.

After the whale died, a Park Service lifeguard tied a cord around the whale’s tail so that it could be dragged onto the beach with a backhoe.

The whale proved to be too heavy, however, and the line snapped the first time the Park Service tried to pull the corpse ashore.

“The veterinary team has since performed a necropsy (animal autopsy) to try to determine the cause of death,” the center reported later in the day. “Once the whale was rolled over, the Marine Mammal Center’s director of veterinary science, Dr. Shawn Johnson, discovered trauma to the sternum area and internal hemorrhaging around the heart.

“In addition, air [bubbles were] present in the subcutaneous tissue, indicative of trauma.” However, the center added, “There were no broken bones discovered.”

The severe trauma to the whale’s right side was found upon further examination.

Numerous radio stations, several television crews, and a number of newspaper reporters and photographers massed on the beach to cover the fin whale’s death. It was the second in a year in West Marin waters. A 47-foot-long fin whale washed ashore at Point Reyes last year after having been struck by a ship.

“Fin whales are the second largest marine mammal on earth, next to blue whales, and belong to the family of baleen whales,” the Marine Mammal Center wrote on its website.

Unfortunately, fin whales are on the federal list of endangered species, and the death of this young leviathan upset many observers. It brought tears to the eyes of my partner, Lynn Axelrod, who covered the sad event for The West Marin Citizen.

The young victim with the town of Stinson Beach in the background.

Even before it began to decay, the whale’s corpse was giving the area a fishy odor. After the whale was cut up by Mammal Center staff, the Park Service buried it eight feet deep further up the beach. Microbes in the sand will cause the fat and tissue to decompose but leave the bones intact.

This was only the latest of many whale burials at the beach. Some 31 whales have become stranded on Stinson Beach in the past 34 years, and even in death they are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Unless one has a permit, it is illegal to disturb the bones.

The Marine Mammal Center on Tuesday reported, “All we can determine at this stage is that the animal appears to have suffered blunt trauma which either caused, or likely contributed to, its death.

“The cause of that trauma is unknown at this time. Additional testing [on blubber from the whale] will potentially reveal other findings.”