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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A dead whale has been discovered pinned to the bow of a Princess Cruises luxury liner near Juneau, the third such incident for the company's Alaska fleet in a decade, officials said on Thursday.
The whale, believed to be a juvenile humpback, was found on Wednesday on the ship's so-called "bulbous bow," the section of the vessel's leading tip that goes through the water, said Julie Speegle, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Juneau.
Speegle said it was possible the whale was already dead when it became pinned to the ship's bow.
Humpback whales are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service briefly detained the ship, the Sapphire Princess, in an area south of Juneau to open an investigation and remove the whale's body.
The ship was allowed to proceed in the afternoon, and the carcass was taken to a site for further study, Speegle said.
The cruise line issued a statement on Thursday saying the company was surprised by the incident and that the vessel's crew had not noticed any impact nor seen any whales near the vessel before the dead animal was discovered.
NOAA marine mammal experts headed to the site on Thursday to gather measurements and other information before a necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy, is performed.
It was unclear on Thursday whether any legal action might be taken against the cruise line, owned by Carnival Corp. & Plc.
In a statement released to Reuters on Thursday, Princess said it was "fully cooperating" with the investigation into the Tracy Arm incident.
"We were surprised and concerned by this discovery, as the ship felt no impact. It is unknown how or when this could have happened, as we were not aware that any whales were sighted in close proximity to the ship when the whale was discovered," the company statement said.
"We have strict whale avoidance procedures in place when our ships are in the vicinity of marine life," the company said, adding the cruise line immediately notified government authorities when the whale was found.
The whale was discovered on the ship near Tracy Arm, a fjord known for its tidewater glaciers, waterfalls and abundant marine life. Tracy Arm is a popular destination for Alaska cruise ships.
"It is on a beach south of Juneau," Speegle said. "We don't really want to be any more specific than that."
It was the third possible whale strike by a Princess Cruises ship since 2001.
Last year, the same ship was discovered to have a dead fin whale pinned to its bow when it returned to Vancouver from an Alaska voyage. Fin whales, like humpbacks, are classified as endangered.
In 2007, the company paid $750,000 to settle a criminal charge related to a dead whale found just outside Alaska's Glacier Bay in 2001.
That whale, a pregnant humpback, was found to have had its skull crushed. Although Princess did not admit in the settlement to striking the whale, the company pleaded guilty to failing to operate one of its vessels, the Dawn Princess, at a safe speed around whales.
The Sapphire Princess is currently on a seven-day Inside Passage round-trip voyage out of Seattle, the company said.
Editing by Steve Gorman, Jerry Norton and Sandra Maler