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British Columbia Experts look for cause of death after whale found in waters off Vancouver

Officials on a Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada boat prepare to have a dead male fin whale moved by another boat on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday May 11, 2015. The Fisheries Department says a dead whale spotted in Vancouver's harbour came in on the bow of a cruise ship. Officials towed it to another location so scientists could conduct a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A team of marine biologists and veterinarians is trying to figure out whether a dead fin whale found in the waters off Vancouver's main port was killed by a cruise ship or died another way before its carcass was dragged by the boat's hull as it travelled from Alaska.

The fin whale, whose species is the second-largest animal on the planet, was discovered wrapped around the lower portion of the bow by staff of the Seven Seas Navigator ship and authorities at Port Metro Vancouver on Sunday morning, said Paul Cottrell, a whale expert at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Specialists with the Fisheries Department, the University of British Columbia, the provincial government and the Vancouver Aquarium are expected to finish a necropsy on the roughly 18-metre male on Monday afternoon, Mr. Cottrell said.

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"Time is really of the essence," he said. "Just with tissue degradation, we want to determine cause of death and time of death."

Tissue samples will be then be sent to a lab for further analysis, which will take at least several weeks, Mr. Cottrell said. If the experts can figure out when the whale died, they can determine whether the cruise ship hit it while it was alive or whether the carcass became draped over the bow some time during the ship's journey from Ketchikan, a port on the Alaskan Panhandle, to Vancouver, he added.

John Ford, a marine mammal scientist with the Fisheries Department, said the whale appears to have been hit north of Vancouver Island and it is the third dead fin to have been brought into Vancouver's waters on the bow of a cruise ship. The first incident was in 1999, followed by another 10 years later when a whale was believed to have been hit after it had died, Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Cottrell said there are lots of documented cases of vessel strikes involving live whales around the world, but a lot more research is being done to look at the risk large ships pose to marine mammals. Vessel strikes and getting tangled up in fishing nets are the two of the main dangers facing fin whales off B.C.'s coast, according to the Fisheries Department, which lists the whales as threatened and protected under the Species at Risk Act.

Fin whales, the largest mammal after blue whales, are nicknamed the "greyhound of the sea" for their ability to reach speed bursts of up to 46 kilometres per hour. Their population on Canada's West Coast was decimated by commercial whaling up until it was outlawed in 1975, according to the Fisheries Department. Mr. Ford said the presence of more fins in B.C. waters is possibly why more of them are being hit by ships of all kinds

B.C. scientists don't know how many fin whales there are, though 500 of the individual whales have been identified from their markings through photographs in the last five years, mostly on the north coast of Vancouver Island, Mr. Ford said. Their population is likely more than double that number and Mr. Ford's research group at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C., is trying to determine more precise figures. From 1985 to 2003, recreational boaters reported 83 sightings, according to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network.

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