July 2, 2008
Baby sperm whale stranded on Avon Beach
By JORDAN TOMBERLIN
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
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
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.