A Blue Whale Is Slowly Decomposing on the California Coast

In this Friday, May 26, 2017, photo provided by The Marine Mammal Center, Scientists from The Marine Mammal Center and California Academy of Sciences plan to perform a full necropsy Saturday on a 79-foot female blue whale carcass that washed ashore at Agate Beach in Bolinas, Calif. The whale was identified as a sub-adult female blue whale measuring 24 meters, or about 79 feet. Blue whales are the largest animal on earth and are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Credit: Guiancarlo Rulli / The Marine Mammal Center / AP

Blue whales are truly the stuff of legend. They are the largest creatures ever known to have existed, but because of their awe-inspiring size and lack of natural threats, they have little sense of defensive instinct. Sadly this accounts for the frequency of their deaths caused by collisions with large ships.

Such was the case with a 79-foot blue whale that washed up on Agate Beach in Bolinas, California, last week. Scientists from the Marine Mammal Center who performed a necropsy have concluded based on the blunt trauma sustained, including several broken ribs and a fractured spine, that the wounds must have come from a large ship strike.

Sad though it may be, this is not entirely shocking considering the blue whale’s lack of flight response. Scientists from Stanford who conducted a 2015 study on collision-avoidance patterns of blue whales found that instead of diving when confronted by a ship’s passage, they will merely sink horizontally at the leisurely rate of half a meter per second. Apparently blue whales just don’t have the evolutionary mechanisms that would instruct them to get out of the way, since for the vast majority of their existence there was simply nothing big enough to compel them to do so.

The whale sitting on the beach in Bolinas is the latest known victim of these collisions, following a specimen that washed up on another California beach last October. The Bolinas whale had been tracked by scientists before, who were able to identify its tail markings. It had been observed off the coast of California several times through the years from as far back as 1999.

According to the Marine Mammal Center, the whale’s corpse cannot be towed back out to sea due to a reef surrounding the beach, so it will remain where it rests as it decomposes.