News

Beached whale succumbs as crowd gathers in White Rock

Hundreds of people young and old flocked to White Rock beach Tuesday morning after a juvenile humpback whale was found beached on the waterfront's east side.

Entangled in fishing line, the scarred and chafed mammal – described by one fisheries official as the "worst body-condition animal I've ever seen" – did not survive.

"It had been suffering for a long time," said Paul Cottrell, a South Surrey resident and the Pacific marine mammal co-ordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

It was alive, however, when Mario Pavkovich and his mother first spotted it around 5 a.m., as they walked their dog near the east end of the promenade.

From a distance, Pavkovich's mother initially thought the black mass was a capsized sailboat, but as they got closer, it became obvious it was a whale.

When Pavkovich got within 100 feet, the whale took a breath, and he noticed fishing line was wrapped from its mouth to its tail fluke.

He ran back to a hotel to call for help and direct authorities to the site. As word spread that the whale was still alive, passersby raced to grab buckets.

But before the rescue effort could get into full swing, it was too late.

Pavkovich, a fisherman by trade, was at the whale's side when it died.

"Its eyes grew wide… it's like it was trying to swim," he said of the whale's movement.

"Then he made this big noise, gurgled out some water, and that was it."

He estimated the whale was alive for about an hour after he'd first spotted it.

While Cottrell said the whale had clearly been in distress for some time, he noted a 24-hour line (1-800-465-4336) that exists to respond to reports of injured and distressed marine animals had received no calls of an entangled animal in the bay prior to Tuesday's alert.

"This animal was never sighted, so we didn't even have a chance to go out when it was in the water," he said.

As TV news crews circled the scene by helicopter Tuesday morning, curious area residents and others who heard and saw the broadcasts continued to gather. On some stations, the story was given priority over news of a shooting.

Amy Rogers brought her seven-year-old son, Lucas Rogers-Wilson, to the beach after seeing the news reports.

At the time, she had thought the whale was alive and that it would be a positive experience for Lucas.

"I woke him up. I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime… and hoped that it would be back with its family," Rogers said.

She described the outcome as "so sad," but said young Lucas took the news in stride.

Fishing line

"He said, 'Mommy, it's natural'," Rogers said, wiping a tear from her cheek.

A White Rock Christian Academy teacher said she scrambled to get permission to bring her  Grade 6 students to the scene.

Many who turned out got in close, touching the whale and placing flowers on its head. One young boy told his dad it felt "like rubber."

Shortly after, fisheries officials and other officers began warning the crowd not to touch the whale, as it had open wounds, was covered with parasites and its exact cause of death was unknown.

By just after 9 a.m., officials had set up a perimeter around the whale, and samples were taken by marine mammal veterinarian pathologist Dr. Stephen Raverty, to assist in a necropsy.

Lindsaye Akhurst, manager of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, said it looked as though the whale hadn't eaten in some time.

"You can see how thin the animal is," she said, estimating its age at less than three years old. "He or she hasn't had (much) of a food source in the last little while."

Members of Semiahmoo First Nation

– who had allowed free parking in Semiahmoo Park for those wanting to pay their respects – including band councillor Joanne Charles, performed an 'honour song' and a blessing for the whale, "to help get him where he needs to go."

"It's unfortunate it ended up on our shore today," Charles told the crowd.

A Canadian Coast Guard hovercraft towed the whale's carcass from the beach late Tuesday evening, anchoring it offshore. Cottrill said it will be moved in the next few days closer to the whale interpretive centre in Telegraph Cove, where its skeleton will eventually be re-articulated for educational purposes.

He praised all of the effort that went into Tuesday's operation, and estimated it will be some time before more of the sad story is known. Part of the puzzle will be to figure out where and how the whale got caught up in the gear – answers Cottrell said may be difficult to find.

It's "highly unlikely" he'll be able to link the gear definitively to one fishery, he added.

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