Scientists from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Education had their hands full . . . of dead whale parts, on Monday, as two teams strived to perform necropsies on a pair of whales that washed up on the beach in Amagansett the day before.
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The first, a 58-foot fin whale, came ashore dead and the team worked on the shoreline Monday, taking samples in an effort to determine its cause of death and using a crane to move it off the beach for disposal. The second, a pygmy sperm whale, was in the lab at Riverhead with another team.
Executive director and senior biologist Rob DiGiovanni described the sequence of events. Early Sunday morning, the foundation deployed a rescue team in response to an alert regarding a whale beached in Amagansett near the Windward Shores Resort on Napeague. Later that afternoon, part of the team was diverted when they learned another large animal was beached about two miles down the shore.
The first creature, a 58-foot fin whale, was dead and had been for "quite a while, a couple of weeks" DiGiovanni reported. It was in an advanced stage of decomposition, which made it difficult to move or procure samples for testing, the biologist said.
The fin whale appears to be female, and had evidence of "entanglement" scars, which could mean it had gotten caught in nets. But there was no netting or other material present in the carcass. It also had evidence of blunt force trauma. "It hit something or something hit it before it died," the scientist said. Whether the trauma was the cause of death is still unknown pending the outcome of the necropsy.
"Fin whales are common off our shores year round," DiGiovanni explained. In fact, the Amagansett animal is the second fin whale found on a Long Island beach in two months. In December a member of the same species washed ashore on Breezy Point.
The foundation team diverted to the second apparent stranding was called to assist what was initially thought to be a harbor porpoise. Upon arrival, however, scientists determined it was a pygmy sperm whale in its final throes on the sand. About five and a half feet long, the male juvenile was "in compromised shape," DiGiovanni said. It was euthanized following transfer from the beach to the Riverhead facility.
Pygmy sperm whales are not typically found close to shore, DiGiovanni said. The one discovered Sunday was underweight and sick, with little chance of survival or successful rehabilitation, the biologist explained. "It's always a tough call," said DiGiovanni of the decision to dispatch the whale with a chemical solution similar to the type a veterinarian might use to put a pet to sleep. Rescuers have had "zero success" with saving pygmy sperm whales that beach themselves. "The species doesn't do well in captivity," DiGiovanni explained.
Whether an animal is a viable candidate for rehabilitation is a key component in the assessment conducted on the beach by rescuers. Also a contributing factor? The foundation already has a harbor porpoise in its sole available tank in Riverhead, the only such tank from Maine to Virginia. Scientists have had success rescuing harbor porpoises, DiGiovanni reported. "We've worked with three harbor porpoises. This one will be ready for release in about a month."
The pygmy sperm whale is "not a very commonly encountered animal," DiGiovanni said, adding that it's "very rare" for one to wash ashore while it's still alive.
While the foundation has a "great advantage" of being able to rehab certain species, funds are lacking for the type of research that might answer questions about what drives the animals to the shore. "We're always trying to find funding to study these animals on a broader scale," Di Giovanni acknowledged. Surveys conducted off shore could help determine whether whales are getting sick and dying more often or whether there are simply more of them around.