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The Whale of Nunivak Island

July 20, 2023


The gray whale on the beach at Nunivak Island with Bill and the Scout in the background.


With the film crew gone, I had to get the Endeavour another 850 nautical miles north, across the Arctic Circle and into Kotzebue Sound, for our next research gig. Josh Vest, who had been my very able crew for the last month, had other obligations. Given the distance there (and back), I wanted two crew to share the wheel time.


Bibi Renssen was the first of the two to arrive.  Still anchored in the Nushagak River, I took the Scout in and picked her up at the Dillingham dock.  Bibi was a marine biology grad student at Scripps Institute. We had never met, but we were introduced to each other by a mutual contact at the Explorers Club. She is the sort of person who looks at something new (like an anchor windlass) and doesn’t stop asking questions until she understands how it works.


The next night, at close to midnight, I took the Scout back in and picked up Emmy Garnish.  We had never met either, but had connected on a website that matches boats and crew. Emmy had beaucoup experience on commercial fishing boats and was a hunting guide in the off season (she hunts deer from her paddleboard, so she has an easy escape if a brown bear shows up). She’d just finished a job as a crane operator on a salmon tender.


We rode the tide down the river, took two tries to make it around Protection Point (high winds and shallow seas pushed us back the first time), then passed Round Island, anchored one night behind Asigyukpak Spit, then rounded Cape Pierce. When we crossed Kuskokwin Bay, 60 miles out, we were in only 60 feet of water. Then we made landfall on the east side of Nunivak Island.


This is lonely water. On the charts, few landscape features are named and the soundings are sparse. From the mouth of the Nushagak to here – three days and just over 300 miles – we saw one boat, a landing craft anchored in a bay on Nunivak, just north of Cape Corwin.


This was an interesting coast, with a series of creeks running down into small bays with beaches. We decided to take a closer look. So, we slowed our pace and kept close to the shore. If we spotted something worth investigating, we’d edge in closer, get out the binoculars, and decide if it was worth running the Scout up onto the sand. 


I have a knack for spotting dead things. Right off, I saw a grayish mass above the tideline.


It was a dead walrus. We went in. It was long-dead, rotting, putrid. We could see no signs of an injury. I did notice that the carcass was untouched by bears or wolves, though, meaning we wouldn’t have to worry about predators if we hiked the island. 


An hour later I spotted another off-color mound on the beach. We got closer, then took the Scout in. This was a dead gray whale.


He (it was male) was an adult, or nearly so, 42 feet long. He was limp and mottled yellow and magenta but not yet ripe (nothing like that walrus).  He didn’t seem malnourished, and we saw no wounds or signs of trauma, but obviously we couldn’t roll the body over. He probably weighed 30 tons. But how did he end up here, on this side of Nunivak? The gray whales migrating between Baja and the Arctic travel a route about 100 miles to the west.


We celebrate these giant animals in life – the whales and the walruses – and marvel at their different intelligence and how they communicate and how they organize themselves socially.


But death is an opportunity.  It lets us get closer, to study these giants, feel their skin, move their limbs, and feel grateful all over again that we share a planet with them. 


Focused on the whale, we hadn’t noticed that both the left and right baleen – giant combs to filter out krill and other tiny food creatures – had fallen out of his mouth like giant dentures and were lying on the rocks some steps away.  One of the pieces of baleen was unbroken, 76 inches long by 20 inches wide. I had never seen such a large, perfect piece of baleen. The three of us carefully loaded it onto the Scout. A museum would want it. I liked the idea that for years people would look at this baleen and think of this whale.

– Bill Urschel


Emmy and the whale’s fluke.


Bibi with the complete piece of baleen.


Update: A few readers have asked what they should do if they come upon a “stranded” marine mammal (stranded generally means dead). Note the GPS location, look for signs of trauma (ship strikes, orca or shark bites), and take a lot of photographs. Then, for whales and sea lions, call NOAA Fisheries at (877) 925-7773, and for walruses, polar bears, and sea otters, call the US Fish and Wildlife Service at (800) 362-5148. Researchers at both agencies really need all the data they can get on the wellbeing of these creatures. My thanks to Michelle Dutro at NOAA Fisheries for this information.

7 Comments


Great write-up Bill. Dig your "Advisors" list too... -Alan

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Thanks, Alan. Good to hear from you!

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Amazing to see the baleen, and that you spotted it. I've never seen baleen before, it was just a word. You mention in some of your logs about needing a permit to do something-or-other regarding wildlife; I hope you're unmolested regarding taking this.

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Hi, Clarence! Good to hear from you. We're good with the authorities. We register what we need to with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (and keep the receipts). Best wishes! - Bill

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Dead things ARE kind of fascinating, aren't they! Interesting that the baleen fell out, as if the attachment fibers (or whatever) are thin and quick to rot....

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Do young whales lose baleen to replace it with new, like we do with baby teeth?

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