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Oregon Sperm Whale to Be Given Back to Nature Before Potential ...

The 40-foot endangered whale remains on a beach at a state park following a necropsy to determine its cause of death.

The body of a 40-foot sperm whale that washed up on an Oregon beach earlier this week will be returned to nature, park officials say. Following a necropsy to determine the cause of death, the carcass will remain on the beach until park officials find a safe time in which to move it.

The stranded whale was found at 11:45 a.m. local time on Saturday morning, about 100 yards south of the historic Peter Iredale Shipwreck at Fort Stevens State Park. The whale has since moved closer to the shore.

Members of the NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network determined that the whale, whose species is considered endangered, is a male about 20 years old that had been in generally good health, aside from injuries. However, human activity in the area left it fatally wounded.

The network's team "identified internal bleeding that is evidence of being struck by a ship, which was determined to have been the cause of death," Michael Milstein, public affairs officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries' West Coast Regional Office, told Newsweek. "The whale was apparently struck, and then a propeller apparently cut into the side of the whale."

Sperm Whale stranded on Oregon beach
A 40-foot sperm whale stranded on a beach in Oregon died after it was struck by a ship. Oregon Parks and Recreation Department

The stranding comes days after a female humpback whale washed up on a beach in New Jersey. It is also thought to have been struck by a shipping vessel.

There are many different whale species in the waters off the coast of Oregon, although the population size of each species varies. "The three most commonly stranded species in Oregon are gray whales, humpback whales and sperm whales," said Jim Rice, stranding program manager for Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute.

He went on: "We document an average of six large whale strandings annually in Oregon. In the vast majority of cases, the animal is dead before it comes ashore, and the causes of death vary considerably. Many appear to succumb to malnutrition, others to predation from killer whales, fishery entanglement or to ship collisions."

Although multiple strandings are reported every year, sperm whale strandings were less common, according to Milstein. "The most commonly stranded whales are grays and humpbacks," he said. "We find on average roughly one sperm whale stranded each year on the Oregon coast."

Beach at Fort Stevens State Park
The beach where the sperm whale is stranded is on the Oregon coast at Fort Stevens State Park. Oregon Parks and Recreation Department

Sperm whales are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, largely because of historic commercial whaling in the area that drove their populations close to extinction. Their populations are still recovering, Milstein said, and now roughly 2,000 sperm whales are estimated to live off the West Coast.

An average male sperm whale weighs around 45 tons and measures roughly 52 feet long. They can live up to 60 years, but marine debris, pollution and vessel strikes can significantly curtail this life span.

The beach at Fort Stevens State Park remains open, but visitors are asked to keep a safe distance from the carcass. Very occasionally, decomposing whale carcasses can explode. Stefanie Knowlton, a communications specialist at Portland State University, said that the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) is working with local contractors to find a safe period for moving the whale.

"The high water table and high tides during winter make it difficult to take heavy equipment out on the beach safely," she said. "Once moved, OPRD will allow the carcass to decompose in place as much as possible to provide nutrients to seabirds and animals. Eventually, the carcass will be buried if needed."

Do you have an animal or nature story to share with Newsweek? Do you have a question about whales? Let us know via nature@newsweek.com.

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