When Jacquelyn Zito was heading toward the Berkeley Marina on her 40-foot sailboat last weekend, she saw what she thought was an overturned rowboat, bobbing in the choppy waves. Gulls above.
But when she got a little closer, she saw it was a dead whale.
On the one hand, said Zito, who lives in Berkeley, she was relieved, because she’d worried what next steps might be required to aid the floating boat. On the other hand, she said, “It was sad. Oh my goodness, this is terrible — how did he die? We don’t usually see dead things in the water.” She and her husband were motoring home from Napa.
The whale, she said, appeared to be floating out into the Bay from near the Berkeley-Albany border.
This whale carcass, it turns out, is not new to authorities monitoring such things. A dead male gray whale was discovered floating offshore of Alameda about a month ago. It was towed by the Army Corps of Engineers to shallow waters due west of El Cerrito and northwest of Berkeley, near Brooks Island, where it was anchored to decompose naturally, said Capt. Kixon Meyer, who runs the Corps’ ship charged with keeping bay waters clear of debris – including dead whales.
The Army Corps is the agency responsible for maintaining safe Bay Area navigable waters, and Meyer said one of his duties is deciding the best location for deceased whales where they won’t pose risks in the water or out.
The whale, located a little more than one mile offshore, was tethered with 100 feet of line plus 25 feet of chain and an anchor that will hold 40,000 pounds, he said, the estimated weight of this whale.
The anchor shouldn’t drag, unless someone deliberately moves it, he said. The whale has about 125 feet diameter of floating space, bobbing with the tides and currents.
“It’s my job to remove anything from the navigational channels that will affect or endanger anyone’s life,” Meyer said.
He said he factors in currents, depths, boat traffic, proximity to people on shore (who may object to the sight or smell) to help make a decision on where to place whale carcasses. “We have to put a large mammal somewhere. … There’s not a lot of choice.”
It’s a challenge, Meyer said, that he enjoys. “This is something that keeps me interested every single day,” he said.
This is the second time Meyer’s put a whale in this East Bay location, he said, and this creature has “lasted longer than I expected.”
He’s towed three dead whales recently to a quiet part of Angel Island, where they were hauled ashore to decompose. Moving dead whales on shore is usually only done when they are still in an early state of decomposition and a necropsy (animal autopsy) can be performed, said Giancarlo Rulli, a spokesman for the Marine Mammal Center, headquartered in Sausalito.
The Mammal Center, the science arm of Bay Area whale response, is also the designated organization for public whale reports, living or deceased. It takes information on sightings and coordinates with necessary agencies, if needed, Rulli said.
On April 4, the center received a report of a dead whale off Alameda. Team members located the animal and collected blubber and muscle samples, Rulli said. “No definitive cause of death could be determined.”
To do a full necropsy, the most reliable way to determine cause of death, a whale must have washed or been hauled ashore in relatively good condition, he said. When decomposition is further along, as was the case with the recent whale, they’re usually left in the water.
The condition of floating whales can be studied to an extent, but not in detail.
All organizations involved in whale response have been on alert in recent years. In 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for gray whales along the Pacific Coast after a sharp increase in stranded animals.
Whales are considered stranded by NOAA when they are found dead, in or out of the ocean, or beached and alive but unable to return to the water.
That year saw 122 stranded gray whales in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California, compared with an 18-year average of about 15 strandings a year.
In Bay Area waters, in the bay and along the coast, 14 whales were found stranded in 2019, five in 2020, 15 in 2021 and four so far this year.
This includes the whale sighted by Zito.
West Coast data shows the stranding increase may be slowing, but it’s too early to draw any conclusions, Rulli said.
Studies show most of the whales died from malnutrition or ship strike, Rulli said. It can also be both.
Once endangered due to whaling, the gray whales that travel off of California are considered a recovered population of around 27,000. A different species of gray whale that migrates to Russian waters is still endangered.
Much-watched research has linked the recent decline in the gray whale population with climate change, related to the shrinking arctic ice shelf. Gray whales migrate annually from winter breeding areas in warm shallow waters off Baja California to arctic summer feeding grounds that are usually teeming with the small but nutrient- and calorie-dense organisms they scoop up.
The migration of gray whales is one of the longest of any mammal, around 10,000 miles round trip. Sightings off the California coast of migrating whales heading south in fall and north in spring are common.
Three living whales were reported in the Bay on Tuesday, Meyer said.
When hearing that the whale she saw isn’t yet another new death, Zito was relieved. She had heard about the Alameda whale, but thought it had been hauled far away.
“Oh, that’s awesome if it’s the same whale,” she said. “Makes me feel better than if it was a new one.”
To report a whale in San Francisco Bay waters, call the Marine Mammal Center at 415-289-7325 or visit its website.