Finding a New Species
I am the "young Biology teacher" mentioned in several news stories about the recent discovery of a new species of Beaked Whale. In the summer of 2014 I was working on the island of St. George in Alaska's Pribilofs when I discovered a mysterious whale carcass on the beach after a storm. Read the story below and enjoy some of my photos and video from this exciting find!
I am currently doing a "Big Year" - traveling across North America, successfully spotting over 700 species of birds between 1 January and 31 December 2016. I started The Birding Project as a way to share birder's stories and connect people with nature using technology. Check out more at www.thebirdingproject.com
BACKGROUND OF ST. GEORGE ISLAND
In the summer of 2014 I got a job working on St. George Island in Alaska's Pribilof Islands.
St. George's approximate 35 square miles of land splits open the turbulent waters of the Bering Sea. As a result of the volcanic geology the swift currents meeting the steep underwater shelf create rich upwellings of nutrient-rich water, that attract small marine organisms. These are the base of a complex marine food chain. 2.5 million sea birds nest on the thousand-foot cliffs overlooking the Bering Sea. Thick-billed and Common Murres, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars, and about 80% of the world's population of Red-legged Kittiwakes. On the rocky shores below, thousands of Northern Fur Seals haul out on shore and give birth to pups during the summer. I couldn't wait to see the diverse marine life, and have a chance to see some new birds- including the possibility of a rare Asian vagrant, like this female Smew!
WHERE IS ST. GEORGE?
FINDING THE WHALE
On the morning of June 18th, I drove out to the airport to check the weather. (Town is on one side of the island, and the airport is over a hill on the other side- the weather can be completely different on the other side of the island) Driving over the hill, I was surprised to see the gravel road was covered with nearly 1,000 Red-legged Kittiwakes! A flat spot below the crest of the hill is a protected spot out of the wind, where kittiwakes frequently stop to rest as they fly from the cliffs on the west side across the island to feed offshore the east side. On especially foul windy days the road is blanketed with so many kittiwakes it looks like a snow drift! At this point, I realized that no flights were going to make it in today; we were socked in with fog, wind, and a light rain which blew in all directions with the shifting wind. I went to the airport and checked the weather anyways. This was a typical day on St. George.
These kinds of windy, bleak days made me think about the possibility of a bird being blown over from Asia, so I'd always keep my eyes open as I crossed the island for surprise avian visitors. With some free time in the morning, I decided to do a quick bird survey, and I scanned Zapadni beach. I scanned down the beach through my binoculars. The surf was several feet high and the wind ripped the misty tops off the waves creating drifts of salty spray drifting behind each crashing wave. The beach was empty, not even a gull was loafing about.
Later in the afternoon, the pilots for ACE Air Cargo somehow managed to find a hole in the fog and performed a miraculous landing at the airport, delivering some much-needed groceries, mail, meds, and some supplies for the upcoming 4th of July celebrations. At the end of the day, after I finished completing some routine paperwork, I stopped at Zapadni Beach again, to scan down the shoreline and see if the storm had blown in anything interesting. I was expecting birds, but instead I saw this giant white blob on the end of the beach through my binoculars. I grabbed my spotting scope from the truck and looked through it with amazement- it was a dead whale!
I ran down the beach with excitement. Thoughts raced through my head... I've always wanted to find a dead whale... What would the teeth look like? How did it die? Was it a Beluga... or something else?
As I approached the carcass, I prepared myself for the overwhelming stench that should come from such a large dead mammal. I was surprised it didn't really smell bad at all. The all-white whale was covered with scars spanning his head, back, and sides. It lay on its right side on the coarse black volcanic sand, a thin layer swirling over the tail fin with each incoming wave. All that was left of the exposed pectoral fin were stringy pieces of blubber and skin; the remainder was likely a meal for a plethora of pelagic scavengers who took advantage of the floating buffet until it arrived here on St. George.
I took out my iPhone and began filming a video for my Biology class, describing the now-obvious male whale's features as I circled around it. The melon of the whale was pronounced, and it had a longer beak than a beluga. At first I assumed it was a beluga, as I didn't know of any other white whale species- and it was big! (I estimated over 20 feet, and later, island seal biologists took measurements) I was surprised at the near-complete lack of teeth- which also ruled out Beluga as an option. I knew that what I had just found was beyond my scope of knowledge, and so I'd have to reach out to my friend Karin and see if she knew what it was.
The following morning, I reported the carcass to Hertha Kashevarof, as soon as her office opened. Later when I saw Karin I told her of the whale too, and after seeing it she suggested it was likely a Baird's Beaked Whale. Upon further examination, she realized it was different, and photos were taken to send back to marine researchers in Anchorage, and the rest of the story can be found here.
I returned to the carcass nearly a week later to take another video showing the decomposition process for my Biology class. Shifting tides had moved the carcass to a different spot along the beach, and sand had buried nearly half of it. Several lacerations along the side had grown in size and depth as the carcass aged, and the polished white skin turned dark and split open revealing drying muscle and blubber underneath. It also smelled foul, so it was best to stand upwind while filming.