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harbor porpoise

Juvenile harbor porpoise strands on private beach

Seal Sitters responded this afternoon to a call about a dead harbor porpoise on private property near the Alki Lighthouse. The juvenile male, estimated to be between 2-3 years old, was an intact, fresh specimen and was taken for necropsy by Jessie Huggins of Cascadia Research. The animal was somewhat thin and had some lacerations on the tail. Thanks to Jessie for giving our responders an on-the-beach lesson today on harbor porpoise biology. This is only the third stranded harbor porpoise we have had in West Seattle since 2007.The necropsy will be performed by Cascadia’s John Calambokidis with his marine biology students at Evergreen State College. We will share the findings as we receive them.

Over the past few years, the harbor porpoise has been rebounding in South Puget Sound after experiencing a mysterious decline decades ago. As stocks increase, so do the number of deaths - many due to commercial fishing gear entanglements (especially gill nets) and emerging infectious diseases. The harbor porpoise that died off Alki last March had a severe lung infection caused by a highly contagious fungus. Biologists such as Calambokidis are working to increase research and get more accurate population estimates of these shy and elusive animals.

One of the smallest marine mammals, harbor porpoises reach lengths of 5-6 feet (with females larger than the males) and weigh an average of about 125 lbs. As the name suggests, they prefer shallow waters and frequent harbors, bays and estuaries. They have sleek, dark gray bodies with lighter undersides, blunt heads and live approximately 20 years.

If you see harbor porpoises (or other cetaceans) in South Puget Sound, please report the sighting to Cascadia Research @ 360-943-7325. If you find any dead marine mammal, call your local stranding network (click here for listings in Washington and Oregon). Marine mammals can carry zoonotic diseases (transmittable from animals to humans). Do not touch a dead animal and always keep dogs away. Thanks to waterfront residents Susan and her daughter Jessica who called the hotline and allowed us access to the beach through their property!

Harbor porpoise dies off Alki

     
(necropsy results at end of story) Yesterday afternoon at approximately 3pm, the Seal Sittters hotline received a call from NMFS (NOAA) regarding a report of a “dolphin” in distress off West Seattle. Our responder arrived within minutes, but the animal had just died below the sea wall. A witness said the animal, in reality a harbor porpoise, was swimming in circles just offshore and then died. As the tide began to recede, our lead investigator scaled a rope ladder over the wall in efforts to retrieve the porpoise before the possibility of vanishing with the surging tides. The water, however, was too deep without a wetsuit and snorkel. Calls were quickly made to WDFW’s Marine Mammal Investigations’ biologist Dyanna Lambourn and a plan was put into motion to attempt to secure the animal until a necropsy could be performed.

     
Since the animal was in water too deep, volunteer David took off for the diving coves in search of divers who might be able to help us out. A team of UW Fisheries divers happened to be at Don Armeni boat launch after returning from a dive. Mike Caputo and Erin Morgan graciously agreed to help out. Mike and Erin scaled the wall and he swam out (photo above) to loop a length of rope around the rear fluke and tow to a nearby piling. Erin secured the rope to the piling (left) until the network could figure out our next move.

While the team from Cascadia Research (primary response team for cetaceans in South Puget Sound and the outer coast) and WDFW-MMI weighed the options with impending tide levels, it was determined the animal needed to be moved to an area with easier access than the steep rocks below the sea wall. Our investigator scaled the wall and towed the porpoise in the surf approximately 1/3 mile down to the sandy beach at Alki. Three volunteers assisted her in getting the estimated 150 lb. porpoise high up onto the beach, secured behind a large log overnight. Volunteers Christine and Raiana measured the porpoise at 5’8” while our responders documented the general condition with photographs. There were no obvious wounds evident in our preliminary examination of the porpoise.

     
The Cascadia/WDFW-MMI team will pick up the animal today and perform a necropsy to determine cause of death. Please check back for additional photos and an update on the necropsy results.

To learn about harbor porpoise, click here.

UPDATE: 3/18 afternoon
     
Early this morning, WDFW-MMI marine mammal biologist Dyanna Lambourn and Jessie Huggins, biologist and stranding coordinator for Cascadia Research, arrived to do a preliminary exam of the animal prior to removing the body for necropsy. The harbor porpoise was an adult female and on the thin side. As the team conducted their exam, Patrick Sand and Tracy Record (left background) of the West Seattle Blog and SS volunteers David and Eilene Hutchinson observed and learned about the biology of harbor porpoise who have become more prevalent in Puget Sound waters. The animal was carried from the beach and driven to WDFW’s lab for a full necropsy. We will post the results on Blubberblog as soon as they are revealed. Thanks to all involved in this well-coordinated and challenging effort!

NECROPSY RESULTS UPDATE: 3/18 10:31 pm
Just in - The preliminary results of the necropsy reveal that the 3-5 year old female harbor porpoise suffered from a severe lung infection, with approximately 90% of each lung affected with pneumonia and markedly enlarged lymph nodes in the chest. The infection appeared to be systemic - not only causing damage to the chest , but had spread to the abdomen as well. Tissue samples will be sent to multiple laboratories to determine cause of the infection (fungal, bacterial, viral, parasitic or a combination of organisms). Final results can take a couple of months.

Harbor porpoise strands in Snohomish County

Both our hotline and Edmonds Seal Sitters received calls about a “dolphin” washed up on a beach north of Edmonds. The animal turned out to be a harbor porpoise, likely a subadult in fairly good condition, with no obvious trauma or visible cause of death. Volunteers took photos, measurements, location information and secured the animal for pickup by a NOAA researcher for necropsy. Recovering the bodies of dead marine mammals is valuable to science and the environment. These necropsies allow us a window not only into the health of the population, but the health of the Sound as well.

Harbor porpoise, the smallest of the porpoise family at 5-5.5 feet long, are local to Puget Sound. They have a grey back and lighter to white belly. The dorsal, or top fin on their back, is a small triangle which differs from the more well-known dolphin with the classic curved dorsal fin. Washington’s largest and best known marine mammals, orcas, are actually the largest of the dolphin species with their distinctive tall, curved dorsal.

If you find a dead or live stranded dolphin or whale on the beach, do not touch or move it. Call the stranding network and keep people and dogs away for both their safety and the safety of the animal. To find your local stranding network and to learn more about strandings, click here.
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