July 2,  2008

Baby sperm whale stranded on Avon Beach


Early Monday afternoon, June 30, the National Park Service received calls about a baby sperm whale in distress off Hatteras Island at Rodanthe.  A few hours later, around 4 in the afternoon, the 14 foot, 6-inch calf beached itself in Avon, right beside the pier.

A crowd of several hundred people gathered around the stranded whale, observing as many well-intentioned beachgoers attempted to push the live, 2,000-pound animal back into the water.
Unfortunately, pushing a beached whale back into the water is a fruitless endeavor. Whales essentially come ashore to die.

According to Park Service ranger Erica Newman, “Once they come to the shore, they are pretty much already dead. They come ashore so they won’t drown.”

When the Park Service staff came to the site, they roped off an area around the animal and explained to the bystanders why they couldn’t return the whale to the water, while they waited for experts to arrive with euthanasia.

A couple of hours later, around 6:30, the calf died on its own.

Cape Hatteras receives its fair share of strandings, but this one was extremely unusual.  Most of the marine mammals stranded on these shores are seals or dolphin, and though Cape Hatteras ranks second (behind Cape Cod) for whale strandings, it has been a very long time since a sperm whale has beached itself here.

“It saddens me to think that this is the only time some of these people will ever see a sperm whale,” said Newman.

The rare event attracted experts from all over North Carolina and coastal Virginia, and on Tuesday morning, a team of about 15 to 20 experts, including park rangers, representatives from the North Carolina and Virginia aquariums, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,  veterinarians from North Carolina State University, and Dr. Ann Pabst, assistant chair of the marine biology department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, assembled around the whale and prepared to perform a necropsy—an autopsy performed on animals—in an effort to pinpoint the exact cause of death.  

“We won’t be able to determine [the exact cause] today,” said NOAA representative Gretchen Lovewell, “but we will collect lots of samples.”

Given the animal’s size, transportation to a lab was out of the question, so the necropsy, led by Dr. Pabst, was performed right there on the beach, in front of a curious crowd.

During the necropsy, the whale was dissected, piece by piece, and every organ, carefully examined, would be sent to a pathologist, along with lots of skin and fluid samples, for comprehensive testing.

“I can tell you right now that the ultimate cause of death is abandonment,” said park ranger Michelle Bogardus.

Sperm whales are around 13 feet and 1,000 pounds at birth, meaning that the stranded whale, at 14 1/2 feet and an estimated 2,000 pounds, was still just a baby, probably no more than a few months old.

And because sperm whales nurse for anywhere from two to three years, rarely leaving their mothers’ sides, it was obvious that the stranded calf, which, according to Bogardus, was “emaciated,” had somehow been separated from its mother.

The burning question, of course, is why?

There are several possibilities.  According to Bogardus, some sperm whales are prone to certain problems, including congenital heart defects, which can interfere with a calf’s ability to keep up with its mother, prompting abandonment.

There is also the possibility of poisoning, potentially from human sources, or possibly from biological dead zones, where algae cover can lead to a build-up of toxins in the water.
The abandonment could also have resulted from Naval SONAR testing, which could have disoriented the young whale, causing it to lose its mother.  

Bogardus and the others are hopeful that the necropsy will help shed some light on the situation, but there is a chance that we will never know exactly why the calf was abandoned.

“It all depends on if there’s something wrong with him,” she said.  “There could have been something wrong with the mother.”
After the completion of the necropsy, the remains of the baby whale were laid to rest in a large trough close to the dunes. 

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