July 6, 2018
A Search for Answers in Rare Whale’s Death
By PAT GARBER
Coastal Review Online
It was a beautiful spring day, two days before the opening of the Ocracoke Fishing Tournament.
Lisa Loos, who had driven with her husband from their home in
Winston-Salem for the tournament, was fishing on the beach when
she saw something in the surf.
“We thought we saw dolphins playing off the sand bar and I started
walking towards them,” she said. “Then I thought it was a shark because
a fin was sticking up. Then we realized it was a whale. As it got close
to shore, it started to thrash since the water was not deep enough.”
I learned about it the following morning. Peter Vankevich, co-publisher
of the Ocracoke Observer, local artist Susse Wright and I were driving
up the beach to see what birds were there. Peter got a call from
National Park Service biologist Joslyn Wright, saying that there was a
stranded whale near Ramp 67 and a team was preparing to do a necropsy,
as an animal autopsy is called. We decided to drive over and learn more.
It was not hard to spot the group of people standing around the large
black form lying near the water’s edge. I spoke with Lisa, who said
that she and her fellow fisherfolk had called the National Park Service
immediately after seeing it. They had tried to push the whale back out
as it struggled against the waves, but it was too heavy. A park service
ranger arrived in about 20 minutes. The whale died soon after it
It was a beaked whale, we were told by Wayne Justice, a team
member of the North Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network, who had
come from the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores to help the
park service with the necropsy.
Beaked whales are members of the family Ziphiidae
that includes 22 species, 11 of which are found in North America. They
live far offshore, diving far into the depths of the ocean. Among
air-breathing animals they are the most extreme divers, sometimes
reaching depths of 3,000 feet and staying underwater for an hour or
more. They are some of the least-known mammals, because of their
deep-sea habitat, mysterious habits and apparently low numbers. Most
are slender, medium-sized whales with a small head, a distinctive
beak-like snout and a single blowhole. They can weigh up to 2.7 tons
and reach about 24 feet in length. The body is compressed laterally,
and the flippers and fluke are small and narrow with a dorsal fin
situated well back along the body.
Most beaked whale species are very similar and difficult to tell apart.
This one was originally thought to be a True’s beaked whale, but Paul
Doshkov, a bio-technician and lead marine mammal response coordinator
with the National Park Service stationed in Bodie Island, later
identified it as a Gervais. Named for the French scientist who in the
mid 1800s identified it as a new species, the Gervais beaked whale’s
scientific name is Mesoplodon europaeus, and it is also known as the
Antillean or Gulf Stream whale. It is found far offshore from Long
Island, New York, to Trinidad, including the Gulf of Mexico, across to
the English Channel, as well as off African and South American waters.
As we waited for all the team members to arrive, Justice explained that
during the necropsy they would be searching for any signs of illness or
injury that might have led to its ending up so close to shore and
eventually dying on the beach.
“You just don’t see beached whales that are healthy,” he said. “There
is usually a major illness or sickness that is already in place.
The reality is that they are already too weak, and the currents push
them to the beach.”
He added that, “while it is sad to see such a highly intelligent animal
in a condition like this, it is an opportunity to learn more about
Peter and Susse had to get back, but I decided to stay and watch the
necropsy performed by National Park Service, North Carolina Aquarium
and University of North Carolina researchers, many of whom had worked
together at other strandings. I was given a paper and pen and asked to
The whale measured 14.5 feet and weighed 2,065 pounds. It was an adult
male with no apparent injuries other than shallow abrasions from being
tossed in the surf.
As they cut the skin away, the technicians pointed out the thick layer
of blubber that during earlier times would have been cut up and melted
down to produce oil for lanterns. Beaked whale blubber is unique from
that of other whales in that it is composed almost entirely of lipids
called wax esters.
flesh of the whale was a rich, dark red color, derived from the high
level of oxygen needed for long dives when the whale was unable to
breathe. The organs were carefully removed and examined. The notes I
recorded included an empty stomach, a light load of nematodes in the
gastrointestinal tract, small masses in the pancreas and parasites in
One of the technicians used specialized surgical instruments to remove
the ear bones from the whale’s head. They were to be sent to an
institution in France for an acoustic trauma study. Sonar operations,
such as are used by the Navy, can damage the ears of marine mammals,
interfere with their ability to navigate, and cause them to lose their
way and end up on distant beaches. There has been a correlation in the
past between Navy sonar testing and beached beaked whales.
The cranial section of the vertebral column was removed and would go to
University of North Carolina Wilmington for further study.
The team dispersed after the necropsy was completed, and a National
Park Service bulldozer arrived to bury what remained of the carcass. I
got a ride with park service biologist Joslyn Wright back to the
village, where I began reading more about what I had seen.
Beaked whales have an average lifespan of 27 to 39 years. Their ability
to dive to great depths is facilitated by a large spleen and liver, as
well as the high oxygen content of the flesh. While diving, the heart
slows and the blood flow changes.