Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to note that the whale was collected under permits from the National Marine Fisheries and Alaska SeaLife Center.
A dead Beluga whale found near Deep Creek on Saturday provided a learning lesson for students in the annual Kachemak Bay Campus Semester by the Bay program. The 11 students in the program participated in recovering the body, a necroscopy and, in a particularly stomach churning exercise, flensing and boiling the bones.
A beachwalker reported the stranded whale on Oct. 13. Alaska Wildlife Troopers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Alaska SeaLife Center all responded. The Semester by the Bay students walked 4 miles down the beach to help recover the body and assist with and observe a necrocopsy on Monday. The whale was collected under permits from the National Marine Fisheries and Alaska SeaLife Center.
Now in its seventh year, Semester by the Bay is a study-away program that brings marine biology students from outside Alaska to KBC. It emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning.
Dr. Debbie Boege Tobin, a biology professor at KBC who helps run the Semester by the Bay program, said the cause of death remains under investigation. Injuries suspected to be bullet wounds turned out not to be the case. The Beluga whale is a subadult male. The whale had no food in its stomach, suggesting it might have starved to death.
On Tuesday, some students worked with Tobin and Semester by the Bay instructor Lee Post to flense, or strip tissue from, the bones at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Behind Bayview Hall at the college, other students boiled the bones. Post, known as “the Boneman,” teaches a bone articulation class at the college for Semester by the Bay and other students. Eventually the bones will be cleaned and reconnected. Previous classes articulated two other Beluga whales, a female and a calf.
Tobin said the Beluga whale was badly decomposed, “code 4” on a scale marine mammal stranding network volunteers use to describe the condition of a body. Muscles and organs had rotted to the point of barely being recognizable.
“We call it intestinal pudding,” Tobin said.