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» » Whale hit by ship; to be deep sea research site

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— A few hundred spectators gathered at Fiesta Island’s shoreline on Wednesday afternoon for the arrival of a bloated fin whale, and to watch scientists gather data about what killed the 67-foot creature.

The research team will get even more information than they initially thought thanks to an announcement by Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic organization that it would pay for towing the whale to sea so researchers can observe the slow decomposition process created by a “whale fall.”

It took more than six hours to tow the carcass from Point Loma, where it was discovered Saturday, to the calm water of Mission Bay for the equivalent of an autopsy. After about an hour of tugging by three tractors chained together, city crews were unable to move the whale above the waterline as project managers had planned.

So, roughly two dozen researchers and assistants in yellow waders and rubber boots flocked to the water’s edge and started removing large chunks of skin and blubber. They exposed enough bone to determine that whale was hit by a ship, a common cause of death for the second-largest species of marine mammals.

“There was fracturing on about four meters of the whale’s vertebral column,” said Siri Hakala, a biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Her colleagues gathered numerous tissue and organ samples in what counts as a windfall for marine biologists interested in whale DNA, hormones and numerous other measurements they rarely get to take.

Scientists only had a few hours of daylight for the smelly and physically demanding job — less than optimal. But they were buoyed by Virgin Oceanic’s plans for disposing of the body.

“The most ecologically responsible thing we want to do is put the whale back in the ocean,” said Eddie Kisfaludy, operations manager for Virgin Oceanic in San Diego. “We’ll tie onto it, drag it off La Jolla — about five miles offshore — and add about four tons of steel to it that will hopefully sink it in 2,500 feet of water.”

As the carcass decomposes, it should attract all kinds of sea life and become a sort of living laboratory populated by various fish, shrimp and bacteria. Of course, the process happens all the time in the ocean but rarely do scientists know exactly where to watch it unfold.

“All of those things are very interesting to science because we know very little about the deep sea,” Kisfaludy said. “Taking advantage of an opportunistic situation is what we are doing.”

He said the move comes at “significant cost” for Virgin but he won’t know what that is until the operation is over. Kisfaludy said the effort is part of a much larger vision by Branson to “get the world excited about exploring” the ocean depths.

Until Virgin stepped in, city officials had planned to cut the whale up and dump it in a landfill. Some residents found the idea unnatural but federal marine biologists said it was best to prevent the whale from washing up somewhere else.

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