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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A dead whale was discovered pinned to the bow of a Princess Cruises luxury liner near Juneau, the third such incident involving the company's Alaska fleet in a decade, officials said on Thursday.
The whale, believed to be an adult female humpback measuring 43 feet in length, was found 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 in Juneau.
The whale is believed to have become attached to the bow overnight before being discovered Wednesday morning.
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.
About a dozen biologists and marine-mammal experts were examining the whale carcass on Thursday, NOAA said. Experts will conduct a necropsy on Friday to try to determine the cause of death, NOAA said.
Humpback whales are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
It was unclear on Thursday whether any legal action might be taken against the cruise line, owned by Carnival Corp. & Plc.
Speegle said it was possible the whale already was dead when it became pinned to the ship's bow.
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 was the third whale incident involving 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.
In a statement released to Reuters 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 Sapphire Princess is on a seven-day Inside Passage round-trip voyage out of Seattle, the company said.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune