A fin whale found in Alaska in June. (Bree Witteveen/University of Alaska Fairbanks via AP)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared a recent string of large whale deaths around Alaska to be an "Unusual Mortality Event".

And, well, yeah. Here's why:


(NOAA)

You don't need to be an expert in whale strandings to know that things are looking pretty bleak. As of August, 11 fin whales, 14 humpback whales, one gray whale and four unidentified species have been spotted dead in the western Gulf of Alaska. The unexpected upticks in deaths -- 30 since May, more than three times the average for the area -- have triggered an official investigation. 

[Endangered whales are dying off in Alaska, and scientists are racing to discover why]

According to an FAQ on NOAA's Web site, deaths have also been reported by researchers in neighboring British Columbia. An unusual number of birds have also been dying this summer along the Alaska Peninsula, but it's not clear whether any of these deaths are related.

Bears feed on a beached whale in Alaska. (NOAA)
Bears feed on a beached whale in Alaska. (NOAA)

"NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners are very concerned about the large number of whales stranding in the western Gulf of Alaska in recent months," Teri Rowles, NOAA Fisheries' marine mammal health and stranding response coordinator, said in a statement. "While we do not yet know the cause of these strandings, our investigations will give us important information on the health of whales and the ecosystems where they live."

[Scientists are puzzling out the mass death of endangered whales in Chile]

It could take months or years for the scientists working with NOAA to find some explanation for these deaths. So far, they've only been able to collect tissue samples from one of the 30 carcasses -- many of which have been unretrievable, or too badly decomposed to study -- and even that sample didn't present a clear cause of death.

One cause that they've basically ruled out is radiation exposure. All it takes is a quick Google to know that many instinctively blame the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster for animal deaths. In acknowledgement of that, NOAA has added a note to its FAQ confirming that the tissue they sampled showed no signs of such contamination, but they'll continue to test for it.

For now, nearby residents can help out by calling in any dead whales they spot.

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