By Emily J. Weitz
While it’s not unheard of on the East End to have whales beaching on our shores, on Sunday, when two different species of whale washed up just three miles from each other on Napeague in Amagansett, it was an unusual moment indeed.
“Having one of these animals in a week is a big deal,” said Rob DiGiovanni, executive director and senior biologist with the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. “Two in one day is major.”
However, after biologists performed separate necropsies on the whales on Monday and Tuesday, they concluded that the death of the two whales appeared entirely unrelated, as they had originally suspected.
“They hang out in the same ocean basin,” said DiGiovanni, “but there’s no evidence that the two are linked.”
The first, a female finback whale, washed up dead in Napeague near Windward Shores either sometime overnight or on Sunday morning. It appeared that the whale had been dead for some time, said DiGiovanni, and after the necropsy biologists guessed the 57 foot, 40 to 50 ton whale had died at least two weeks earlier.
“The preliminary findings were that the animal was in an advanced state of decomposition,” DiGiovanni explained. “Many of the internal organs were not present, and there was evidence of a blunt force trauma that happened before it died.”
Upon closer inspection, he said, “The blunt force trauma resulted from bruising under the skin behind the head. There were definite signs of human interaction. It was probably a vessel of some sort.”
There was also evidence of some other human interaction before the death, like entanglement marks on its skin, he added.
The second whale, a male pygmy sperm yearling, was alive and very sick when it washed up on Napeague, about one mile east of Napeague Lane, later that same day. While whales often travel in groups, this five-and-a-half foot, 160 pound juvenile appeared to be traveling and eating alone. It had solid food in its stomach, so it had already been weaned from its mother.
“It was eating on its own, and was not doing well,” said DiGiovanni. “It should have had a much thicker layer of blubber.”
There was no evidence of human interaction, and biologists hope to know more about what caused the illness after pathologists look at some of the whale’s tissue.
“It was a severely compromised animal,” said DiGiovanni. “It had gastritis ulcerations in the stomach, internal bleeding, and peritonitis (inflammation of the intestines). There was an excessive parasite infection, and it was suffering.”
Scientists decided to euthanize the animal at the beach.
Neither of these whales is uncommon to these waters, although pygmy sperm whales are more rarely spotted, said DiGiovanni. They are more commonly found further south, in the Carolinas and Florida, he said.
“We’ll hear of just one or two spottings a year of the pygmy sperm,” said DiGiovanni.
Often the only way biologists can really understand what’s going on with these animals is in an instance like this, when they wash up on shore, he said.
“For as many that come up,” said DiGiovanni, “there are many more who die at sea. That’s why it’s so important that people call when they spot a whale. Whether we’re getting sick or healthy numbers, it helps to give us a bigger picture of what’s going on.”
To report a whale sighting of any sort, call the Riverhead Foundation hotline at 631-369-9829.