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Whale struck by cargo ship seen being consumed by sharks off L.A.

November 11, 2008 |  9:01 am

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Nature can be cruel, but throw man into the picture and life for marine mammals can be doubly dangerous.

You may recall the above photo showing what was originally described as a blue whale carcass pinned to the bow of a cargo ship bound for Long Beach Harbor. It turned out to be a juvenile fin whale, almost 40 feet long.

An average of one-plus whale is known to suffer this fate annually in the Southern California shipping lanes, and last year four blue whales were killed in this manner. It is not known how many whales are struck without anyone knowing about it.

For whatever reason, the crew of the cargo ship, the Cosco Shenzhen, reported that it ditched  the  whale long after it departed Long Beach in mid-October, off the Bay Area.

In fact, it ditched the whale soon after leaving Long Beach, because a couple of researchers I know, David Janiger and Alisa Schulman Janiger, found it a  week later 16 miles southwest of L.A. Harbor, being consumed by sharks.

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In the above photo you can see a blue shark closing in just above the flukes of what the researchers described as a 38-foot juvenile fin whale -- the same whale they'd inspected when the ship was at port.

"I was able to confirm that it was the same whale that we had seen on the ship's bow, by matching pigment patterns from the inside of its right pectoral flipper," Schulman-Janiger said in  a summary issued Monday. "She was belly up, rorqual pleats extended with decomposition gases. Her missing throat and multiple gouges on various areas of her body attested to dedicated predatory visits by sharks."

The researchers saw three sharks, all blues, feeding on the whale as they observed for 45 minutes.

"As we lifted the whale's fluke to peel off a a skin sample for DNA analysis, the blue shark quickly left us and headed around the fluke to the other side of the fin whale, which tilted a bit as we moved it," Schulman-Janiger described. "The shark reached high out of the water and bit the exposed body of the whale, shaking its head hard as it tore loose a piece of fin whale flesh."

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Strangely, as they were watching nature take its course, an emaciated blue whale calf, which appeared to have been abandoned by its mother, swam past the dead whale and positioned itself along side the researchers' boat.

Had its mother also been struck by a cargo ship? Nobody will ever know.

--Pete Thomas

Photos: Top photo by Madeleine McJones shows what was originally reported to be a blue whale pinned to the bow of a cargo ship. It was, in fact, a juvenile fin whale. Other photos, by  Alisa Schulman-Janiger, show blue sharks dining on the same whale in the San Pedro Channel.

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