When dead marine mammals wash up in Unalaska, a team of local scientists springs into action to reconstruct what went wrong. These forensic investigators come from the fish and wildlife office, from a university program and, as was the case this month, Unalaska’s high school.
KUCB’s Lauren Rosenthal braved morbid humor and gore to bring back this report from a sea lion necropsy.
The Steller sea lion that washed up on the beach is about seven feet long, barely an adult female. There are no obvious injuries, or trauma – no bullet holes, or scars. It’s impossible to say why she died by looking at her.
Reid Brewer is sharpening knives and getting ready to necropsy the sea lion. The professor for the Alaska SeaGrant program is decked out in a high-tech wetsuit.
“So we’ll do samples of all the organs, skin, muscle blubber, and we’ll do them in duplicate.”
Brewer asked a Fish and Game biologist and a local volunteer to help him out. They’re all experienced with necropsies, so they quickly burn through some of the easier tasks on their list.
They start by taking skin and blubber samples. To get to the internal organs, they slice through the sea lion’s ribs.
“That’s the actual bone.”
The procedure buzzes right along, but the high school helpers that Brewer’s enlisted are running late. By the time they finally make it down to the beach, the sea lion is already headless.
But there’s still plenty of work for Kevin, Jasmine, Andy, and brother and sister duo Liam and Jess to do.
“We’re the Tsunami Bowl team.”
“No, we’re just random kids. We don’t want to be here.” (laughter)
They are a team – Team Real Krusty Crab. They participate in the Alaska Tsunami Ocean Sciences Bowl, a quiz and research competition. The team studies together for six hours a week after school with their coaches – Brewer, and their science teacher David Gibson, who’s brought them down to the beach.
The kids just finished their big project for the year — a paper on subsistence crabbing in Captains Bay. Now that that’s out of the way, the coaches want these teenagers to see that marine biology isn’t all lectures and research papers.
Brewer: “I believe somebody calls this work.”
Liam: “I call it fun!”
Brewer: “I think that’s as close as Jasmine’s getting.”
Gibson: “She’s kind of perched on this little rock with her sandals on.”
Jasmine: “I like my little rock right here!”
Even though Jasmine won’t get near the sea lion, the team is pretty unfazed by the gore. They all help out, taking pictures, wrapping tissue samples in foil, and labeling them for the lab.
The closest they come to complaining is when Brewer starts picking apart the sea lion’s liver. To get to it, he has to shove aside the overfilled stomach, freeing a thick odor.
Kevin: “That smell.”
Brewer: “It smells like the ocean.”
Jess: “It smells…like beef.” (Everyone laughs at her.)
Jess, who thought the sea lion smelled like beef, seems the most interested in the necropsy. And when Brewer finds something strange in the abdominal cavity, Jess is at his side.
Jess: “That’s just disturbing. Reid, do you know what it is and you’re just not telling us?”
Brewer: “I have a hunch what it is. See that little hand? Little flipper?”
Jess: “It had a fetus!”
Liam: “WHOA. Can I keep it?”
Jess: “That’s so sad.”
Brewer says it’s not uncommon to find a fetus during a . While he says it’s sad for him, too, there’s nothing they can do.
The kids quiet down a little, until Brewer starts taking stool samples. Then, the mood lightens considerably. Around then, team joker Liam decides he wants to name the sea lion.
“Yeah, his name is Francois!”
“Her? Her name is Francesca, then.”
Brewer starts cleaning his tools, while the kids say their goodbyes and make plans to meet back in the classroom later for practice.
Nothing that Brewer saw inside the sea lion this afternoon jumped out at him as a possible cause of death. The team will send their samples to an animal vet in Anchorage, and it will be up to her to help solve the mystery. The results might not come back until February.
By then, the tides – and the eagle that’s been swooping overhead for the past hour – will have taken care of what’s left of Francesca.