The Sad Tale of Two Rare Whales

The juvenile True's beaked whale that washed up in Bridgehampton late Sunday.
The juvenile True’s beaked whale that washed up in Bridgehampton late Sunday. | Courtesy Riverhead Foundation

True’s beaked whales are a mysterious breed. Among the champion divers of the deep sea, they’re seldom seen except by mariners who venture more than 80 miles offshore. But this week, two of these mysteries of the deep washed up along the Southampton Atlantic shore.

The small whales — which look somewhat like large dolphins — are usually less than 20 feet long. When a jogger near Flying Point Beach in Southampton called in to the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Preservation and Research Sunday morning to report he saw one floundering in the surf, he believed what he had seen was a dolphin. By the time a second True’s beaked whale, this one a young calf, washed up near Mecox Beach in Bridgehampton later that afternoon, scientists from The Riverhead Foundation knew they’d stumbled on a rare marine mammal find.

The adult whale that washed up in Southampton Sunday | courtesy Riverhead Foundation
The adult whale that washed up in Southampton Sunday | Courtesy Riverhead Foundation

The Riverhead Foundation, with the enlisted help of crews from the Southampton Village Highway Department and Southampton Town, spent Sunday and Monday taking the two small whales back to their laboratory to begin the process of discovering how they died.

They sent both animals’ heads to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts for CT scans and examinations for brain parasites. They sent out samples to see if the whales tested positive for morbillivirus, the dolphin pneumonia that killed a record number of bottlenose dolphins on the Eastern Seaboard last year. And they discovered that the adult female whale was lactating and the calf had been nursing.

“We’re waiting for genetic testing to confirm they’re related, but it’s reasonable, since they’re so rare and their location was consistent, that it might have been a mother and calf,” said Kim Durham, director of the Riverhead Foundation’s rescue program, on Wednesday.

Ms. Durham says the necropsy shows the calf likely died before the adult whale, but may have been adrift in the sea for longer before washing ashore, since there was a significant amount of damage to its skin from scavenger animals feeding at the carcass.

“The calf had indications of starvation and parasite load, and the female adult had pretty extensive ulcerations in her GI tract, which might have resulted in her not feeding,” she said. “If she wasn’t in good health, that might explain why the calf didn’t survive, if it was a dependent calf.”

Ms. Durham said the Rivehead Foundation’s records show they’ve responded to five beaked whale strandings since the 1980s, but only two of those whales were True’s beaked whales. The beaked whales she’d personally seen before this week were already badly decomposed.

“They’re definitely usually in deeper water, which is one of the reasons we don’t have more information about them,” she said. “They’re rarely encountered. We don’t know if they travel in groups. We don’t have any information about this species.”

Another True’s beaked whale washed up off the coast of Rhode Island on Dec. 18, 2013, but Ms. Durham said that animal was fairly decomposed and the Riverhead Foundation isn’t looking into a connection with the whales found in Southampton this week.

It will be several weeks before the genetic testing and pathology reports are completed, she said, though she believes the laboratories doing the work will treat these as priority samples.

“Beaked whales are pretty high on the list in terms of lack of information,” she said. “This is a species that has been tied in with acoustic damage from sonar, and things like that. If we have a beaked whale that’s fresh, researchers are very interested in it.”

She added that NOAA is asking marine mammal researchers to test other species for morbillivirus since last summer’s outbreak in bottlenose dolphins.

“We don’t know if the virus can jump to other species,” she said.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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