There is now a little less of the beached humpback whale on the rocks at White’s Point in San Pedro. The dead animal has been featured in multiple media accounts, but now it is also destined to star in a show on the National Geographic Channel. Or at least put in a cameo appearance. As shark bait.
A team from Fischer Productions, the company responsible for the hit show Shark Men, was on the beach cutting large chunks of blubber off the humpback carcass on Tuesday. Blubber is the thick layer of fat beneath the skin of most marine mammals. It acts as insulation, allowing the warm-blooded animals to spend most or all their lives in the water. It also serves as a way to store energy, which is essential to some species of whale that only feed a few months out of the year. And it is this high energy content that makes blubber an attractive food source to many species when they have access to it. Some larger sharks prey on marine mammals directly and many more will take advantage of a floating carcass. This particular humpback washed ashore with a couple of bite marks that indicate scavenging by sharks.
It was difficult to tell what was whale oil and what was sweat, as Captain Brett McBride glistened in the midday sun in a scene reminiscent of the Discovery Channel’s show “Dirty Jobs.” He was standing in the foul water next to the dead whale, using a long knife to slice through the skin and blubber and tossing the large chunks to higher ground to be packed in plastic bags and wholesale seafood boxes. Then the bags and boxes had to be carried over the treacherous rocks to the waiting truck.
But McBride was upbeat. “This haul will keep us supplied for at least a couple of years,” he said. The chunks of blubber will be used to attract sharks like great whites and tigers to be captured, examined, tagged and filmed for Shark Men. In addition to obtaining dramatic footage for the NatGeo show, the team also collects scientific data to better understand the large sharks, through the non-profit OCEARCH. Here is what the organization says on its Facebook page: “OCEARCH works around the globe to champion the social, economic, and environmental benefits of sustainable fisheries management; protect and encourage sportfishing access as a key catalyst of conservation; support efforts which identify, reduce, and prevent the occurrence of marine debris; and advance ocean research and education.”
It is illegal to take any part of a marine mammal in this country, unless under a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Fischer Productions has teamed up with UC Davis researcher A. Peter Klimley who holds such a permit. Anyone else tempted to keep a piece of the whale as a souvenir could be staring at an expensive fine.
Shark Men airs on the National Geographic Channel on Sundays at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. This Sunday’s episode is titled “Deadly Sea” and follows a female great white named Amy to the Sea of Cortez.
I need to clarify something in my Sunday post. According to Phil Clapham in “The Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals,” humpbacks attain a maximum length in the 52 to 55 foot range, with 46 to 49 feet being typical. Females are normally three to four and a half feet longer than males. While it proved impossible to obtain accurate measurements, Dave Janiger of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and ACS/LA Gray Whale Census Director Alisa Schulman-Janiger measured the distance between the tips of the flukes at under 12 feet. That would probably put the animal in the 30-foot range.
The Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors confirmed plans to tow the carcass out to sea at high tide Thursday afternoon. A 5.14-foot high tide will occur at 6:26 p.m.