Column: Responding when a young humpback whale washes ashore

A humpback whale washed ashore at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday, Feb. 17. It is uncertain how the animal died, and it may be difficult to determine this information because the whale was badly decomposed when it was discovered. [Jane Bloodworth Rowe/For The Independent News]


VIRGINIA BEACH — I walked northward from False Cape State Park toward Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge when I spotted the dead whale, visible from at least a mile away despite the intermittent rain and low lying clouds.  

If I had not heard about the whale stranding from an employee at the refuge, I might have mistaken it for a boulder or large stump.  As I got closer, however, it became apparent that it was a whale, although its head and face still weren’t clearly visible.

I hoped to get some good pictures of the animal, but the tide was coming in and the frothy water was lapping around him.  I wasn’t wearing boots and the wind and water were cold, so I declined to wade into it. Instead, I stood at a safe distance from the incoming waves and gazed at the whale. He seemed to face out to sea, as if trying to return home.

Researchers may never learn what killed the young humpback whale that washed up at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday, Feb. 17, according to Dr. Alexander Costidis, stranding response coordinator of the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. 

The whale washed up about a mile south of the refuge headquarters, and a staff member at False Cape State Park discovered it. Members of the aquarium’s stranding response team arrived and, by mid-afternoon, had collected samples.

The team performed a necropsy on the whale and took tissue samples for laboratory analysis, but it’s probable that these samples won’t reveal conclusive information because the animal was badly decomposed. 

Whales sometimes die from ship collisions or from entanglement in fishing nets. Costidis said this whale did have scars that suggested that he might have, at some point, become entangled in fishing gear or debris, but these injuries appeared to have healed.  There was also some evidence that a boater may have bumped into the whale, but this injury also appeared non-lethal.

The whale was born in 2017, and wildlife observers had been watching it.  At slightly over 30 feet long, the whale was probably a little large for his age, Costidis said. An adult humpback whale can be up to 50 feet long.

I have seen whales before, but the ones that I saw were out in the open ocean, leaping and cavorting, not inert and stranded. Looking at this young humpback, it was easy to imagine the incredibly massive animal that it would have become when fully grown.  As Costidis later told me, the whale appeared to already be a pretty robust youngster.

It was raining pretty steadily that Sunday, so I slogged through the soft sand back to the refuge, where my car was parked.  I continued to think about the young whale and to wonder what killed it. Did the creature die naturally, or was its death the collateral damage of some human activity?

We might never know in this case, but the response team’s efforts can save the lives of many animals, generate scientific information and bring us closer to answers about the lives of the animals who exist along our shores.

Jane Bloodworth Rowe is a regular contributor to The Independent News.

© 2019 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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