Cause of death for most recent whale to wash ashore may not be known for months

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Virginia Aquarium stranding response team members work to flip a whale over in Virginia Beach Monday. (Justin Belichis)
Virginia Aquarium stranding response team members work to flip a whale over in Virginia Beach Monday. (Justin Belichis)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Necropsy evidence surrounding the dead humpback whale that washed ashore at the Oceanfront’s North End Sunday points to propeller lesions on its right side, Virginia Aquarium research coordinator Susan Barco said.

“Certainly, the evidence all points to the fact that the whale was alive when struck, and that it was a catastrophic injury,” Barco said. “Our preliminary diagnosis would be a vessel strike.”

The team will finish the necropsy report this week and tissue samples will be sent to several labs for analysis in order to determine its cause of death.

“For all of that to be completed, all the lab analysis to come in, it may take months,” Barco said. “Depending on funding, it could take years.”

The whale had three cuts on its side, which Barco describes as a classic series of parallel cuts consistent with propeller strikes.

“Two of them were very severe, and very likely could have caused the death,” Barco said.

The team found fresh fish in its stomach, which means it was probably eating shortly before it died. It was a juvenile male, no older than about 10 years old, according to Barco.

The stranding team reports incidents like this to the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Barco said the organization is concerned.

Team examines whale parts
A stranding response team examines the whale’s tissues and organs at the Oceanfront Monday. (Justin Belichis)

“It’s still not completely clear whether there needs to be action,” Barco said. ” Whales have been struck by vessels here for the past 25 or 30 years, and determining whether we’re seeing an uptick in the number or not is pretty tricky when it doesn’t happen that often.”

This is the third whale to wash ashore in ten days.

“Although three in ten days seems like a really high number, especially to folks who have been out here on the beaches doing the work, statistically it may not be,” Barco said.

National Marine Fisheries Service spokesperson Jennifer Goeble said increases in the humpback whale population is a possibility for the unusual high number in strandings.

“We were able to take humpback whales off the endangered species list in 2016,” Goeble said. “We don’t know exactly, but that’s one possible explanation … more whales in the area means more likelihood of them coming into contact with vessels.”

University of North Carolina Wilmington’s marine mammal stranding program coordinator William McLellan led two teams performing the necropsy early Monday.

One team examined propeller lesions to determine how deep and long they are, with and without its blubber.

Another sampled its organs looking for parasites and took samples for pathology exams.

“There’s a parasite called crassicauda that can ruin its kidneys, and there are different parasites affect the liver,” Barco said.

“We also look for any internal lesions that would be consistent with sepsis, pneumonia … we also take samples of the stomach and intestinal contents to look for biotoxins.”

The team will bury the whale in front of the sand dunes near 80th street, but Barco said nature might benefit more if it was just pushed back into the ocean. When a whale sinks to the ocean floor, it can produce its own ecosystem.

Teams of researchers and volunteers performed a necropsy on the whale Monday. (Justin Belichis)
Teams of researchers and volunteers performed a necropsy on the whale Monday. (Justin Belichis)

“The problem is, long before it sinks, it floats around, and in our area it ends up in front of people’s houses, hit by vessels or on an island near the bridge tunnel … it ends up causing quite a stir,” Barco said. “We choose to bury carcasses when we can, because it’s the easiest for the people. Not because it’s the easiest for the environment.”

Stranding response team volunteer Paula Demosthenes worked on the other end of the red tape marking the necropsy team’s perimeter answering questions from curious passerby. She said she has volunteered with the stranding team for 11 years.

“To have three in two weeks isn’t anything I can remember,” Demosthenes said. “This is a large shipping area, and with all the vessels we have here, there’s a possibility it was struck prior to its death.”

Follow Justin on Twitter @justinbmmj and contact him at justin@southsidedaily.com