It is unknown where the ship may have struck the whales.
“The U.S. Navy and the Royal Australian Navy are cooperating with the NOAA Fisheries and other agencies to review the incident,” Australia’s Department of Defence said in a statement. “The Navy takes marine mammal safety seriously and is disheartened this incident occurred.”
Navy crews at the base tied the carcasses to a dock against booms to prevent the whales from drifting into the harbor’s traffic lanes. NOAA scientists took skin and blubber samples, which will be analyzed at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.
The tests will be able to confirm if the whales are mother and calf or unrelated. The gender of the calf will also be revealed.
The larger whale was then towed out to sea by a large boat, while the smaller whale was supposed to be hauled to Miramar Landfill sometime Wednesday, Viezbicke said. The calf appeared to sustain significant damage, he said, and there were fears the carcass may not hold together during a tow at sea.
John Calambokidis, a leading expert on West Coast ship strikes, said the incident highlights what he’s concluded in his research: ship strikes are dramatically underreported.
“We think it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 or less of the number of ship strikes occurring are getting documented,” said Calambokidis, a senior research biologist and a founder of Cascadia Research Collective, a non-profit based in Olympia, Washington.
According to NOAA, 14 fin-whale ship strikes have been reported off the coast of California from 2011 to 2020.
Fin whales, the second-largest whale species, seem to be particularly susceptible to strikes, as are their larger blue whale cousins, which have been more intensely studied, Calambokidis said. There are a few reasons why.
“We’ve put tags on blue whales and documented near misses, and monitoring their behavior showed us they made very little response to the approach of a ship,” he said. “They didn’t alter speed or direction of travel, and only in a few cases did they alter their diving behavior.”