Whale to be towed to sea after necropsy

Whale to be towed to sea after necropsy (fox5sandiego.com / November 23, 2011)

SAN DIEGO -- A pregnant, 67-foot fin whale that washed up dead along Point Loma will be towed out to sea with a boat provided by billionaire businessman Richard Branson after scientists perform a public necropsy on the carcass, a spokesman for Branson said Wednesday.

The whale carcass arrived at Fiesta Island at about 2 p.m. It was towed into Mission Bay by a 35-foot lifeguard rescue boat.

Parks and Recreation equipment dragged the whale, which weighed an estimated 70 tons, onto the beach, where it will be examined until about sunset, lifeguard Lt. Greg Buchanan said.

San Diego Lifeguards started towing the carcass from the Point Loma at about 7 a.m. Lifeguards on paddleboards attached rope to the giant marine mammal's fluke. When the morning high tide floated the carcass off the beach, they pulled it back into the ocean. The rescue boat pulled the whale slowly northward toward Mission Bay at about 2 knots.

"Everything went according to plan this morning ... (but) I can honestly tell you the lifeguards were struggling with the enormity of the whale,'' Buchanan said.

Experts from the National Marine Fisheries Service will take tissue samples from the whale try to determine what killed it.  Members of the public are welcome to observe the postmortem.

Officials had originally discussed disposing of the carcass by burying it at a landfill, but Wednesday, a representative of Richard Branson said that one of Branson's companies, Virgin Oceanic, will provide a boat to tow the whale out to sea.

A 125-foot catamaran will come down from  Newport Harbor and tow the whale into the open ocean off the La Jolla coast on Friday, Virgin Oceanic spokesman Eddie Kisfaludy said. Scientists from Scripps Institute of Oceanography will take part in the operation and will study what happens to the carcass in the ocean, Kisfaludy said.

The whale washed up near the Point Loma Waste Treatment Plan on Gatchell Road before 4:30 p.m. Saturday, and officials said it did not appear to have been dead very long.

On Tuesday, scientists examined a dead whale fetus, which was apparently expelled by the bloating whale about two days after the mother died. Buchanan said the fetus was gone Wednesday, speculating that it may have been taken away by the tide.

Fin whales, found in oceans all over the world, were nicknamed the "greyhound of the sea'' because they can swim as fast as 23 mph, are the second-largest species of whale and can grow up to 75 feet and weigh 70 tons, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Taking fin whales, prized for their oil, was largely banned by 1976. North Pacific fin whales off the California and Oregon coasts are estimated to number around 2,500.