The first fin whale appeared in Marmot Bay, where the sea curls a crooked finger around Alaska’s Kodiak Island. A biologist spied the calf drifting on its side, as if at play. Seawater flushed in and out of its open jaws. Spray washed over its slack pink tongue. Death, even the gruesome kind, is usually too familiar to spark alarm in the wild north. But late the next morning, the start of Memorial Day weekend, passengers aboard the ferry Kennicott spotted another whale bobbing nearby. Her blubber was thick. She looked healthy. But she was dead too.
Kathi Lefebvre is talking about the whales as we crunch across a windy, rocky beach, 200 miles north of Kodiak. In a typical year eight whales are found dead in the western Gulf of Alaska. But in 2015 at least a dozen popped up in June alone, their bodies so buoyant that gulls used them as fishing platforms. All summer the Pacific Ocean heaved rotting remains into rocky coves along the more than 1,000-mile stretch from Anchorage to the Aleutian Islands. Whole families of brown bears feasted on their carcasses.
Lefebvre, a research scientist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington, had examined eye fluid from one of the carcasses in a failed attempt to winnow the cause of death. Now the two of us are on Kachemak Bay in Homer, Alaska, inching toward a wheezing, dying sea otter sprawled out on the shore. Otter deaths are skyrocketing on the shoreline beneath the snowcapped Kenai Mountains, so Lefebvre is here to see whether the fates of these otters and whales are somehow intertwined.