Dead whale discovered in water at Port Mahon


A dead whale washed ashore at Port Mahon over the weekend. Its state of decomposition has made identification difficult thus far, but the MERR Institute’s best guess is that it’s a juvenile humpback whale. A strategy to remove it is currently in the works. (MERR submitted photo)

PORT MAHON — A dead whale was spotted in the water just off the coast at Port Mahon on Sunday night.

“It was reported to us on Sunday night, but when we talked to locals it seems that it may have washed up there a few days before,” said Suzanne Thurman, director of the Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation (MERR) Institute.

Due to the whale’s late stage of decomposition, identifying it accurately was tricky, said Ms. Thurman. The MERR Institute’s best guess is that the animal is a juvenile humpback whale, originally about 30-feet long or more.

“It’s certainly a baleen whale from what we can see, probably a humpback, but there weren’t a lot of identifying marks left,” said Ms. Thurman. “The tissue was so degraded and much of it has been scavenged — it was kind of like a pile of mush.”

MERR is a non-profit “stranding” response and rehabilitation organization dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals and sea turtles.

The organization is authorized by National Marine Fisheries Service and the State of Delaware to be the official “stranding” respondents for the marine mammals and sea turtles of Delaware.

Under normal circumstances, MERR would have the carcass towed by boat to a state designated wildlife area and landed there for analysis.

“We’d like to be able to see if we can determine the cause of death with it out of the water and take some genetic samples from any remaining tissue if possible — that could tell us a lot,” said Ms. Thurman. “Afterward we could leave it there in a spot that’s outside of a residential area, and not frequented by people so nature can take its course.”

However, with the way this particular whale is situated, MERR is unable to remove it promptly. Several tide cycles have lifted the body up and over rows of wooden pylons near the shore. It’s now wedged between two rows of pylons. This will make towing it by water difficult because the size of boat needed would have difficulty navigating the shallow shore waters near the pylons. It would also be difficult to pull ashore at present.

“Port Mahon has a lot of sharp and jagged rocks on the coast and dragging the decaying carcass across those would just shred it to pieces — the people who like to fish there wouldn’t be too pleased with that,” said Ms. Thurman. “The whale probably weighs around 1,500 pounds per foot, about 15 to 20 tons total, so a large vessel would need to tow it by water. That might not be possible with the water depths in that area.”

With wind and rain in the forecast today, Ms. Thurman said MERR is going to cross its fingers for some help from nature.

“The seas aren’t supposed to quiet back down until some time Wednesday so we’ll at least have to wait to do anything until then,” she said. “We’ve talked with DNREC and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and we all agree that we’re in a holding pattern at the moment. We hope the next few tide cycles may lift the whale back out and bring it away from the coast.”

A string of strandings

This whale is the fourth in under a year to wash up dead on Delaware shores, said Ms. Thurman. Finding whales in the bay isn’t unusual, but the amount that have shown up dead seems to be on the rise.

“We get frequent sightings in the bay from fishermen — the whales like to follow the deep bay channels for food,” she said. “Over the past few years, not just in Delaware, there have been an increased number of dead humpback whales washing ashore. This may eventually be declared as an unusual mortality event.”

In under a year, one whale washed ashore on the oceanfront, one was found in the mouth of the bay and one was found in the Port of Wilmington last November — all were juvenile humpback whales similar in size to the one found at Port Mahon. The whale found at the mouth of the bay was too decomposed to examine and pull samples from, but the other two showed signs of being hit by boats or tangled in fishing gear, said Ms. Thurman.

“Humpback whales are an endangered species so it’s particularly sad to see several young ones that hadn’t yet reached reproductive age wash ashore dead,” she said.

According to a 2015 study by NOAA, the North Atlantic population of humpback whales was estimated to be at 4,894 males and 2,804 females.

Facebook Comment