Thursday, June 20, 2002

Dead whale turns up again

Published in the Current

A dead humpback whale continues to visit local beaches and is posing a challenge for marine biologists trying to find a place for it to decompose naturally.

The whale, first found on Richmond Island June 7 and nine days later on Old Orchard Beach, was to be towed out to sea a second time after it washed ashore again on Scarborough Beach June 18.

When first located on Richmond Island, the whale had been dead for about five days. It was tied down to rocks in Mussel Cove for further study on June 8.

An examination of the 32-foot juvenile whale could not determine the cause of death, according to Greg Jakush, president of the Marine Animal Lifeline.

The Cape Elizabeth Water Extrication Team took Jakush and another Lifeline biologist out to the whale and managed to tie the corpse to a large rock on the island, to prevent it from floating away.

The location of the whale, on sharp, slippery rocks in Mussel Cove, made the prospect of cutting open the corpse a hazardous one, Jakush said, so the scientists decided not to. After about 24 hours, tissue samples from a dead whale are almost useless, he said.

The whale was left there, Jakush said, to decompose. He and others expected the whale to stay put, but with storms and high winds over the weekend, the whale moved to Old Orchard Beach. It was towed out to Three Tree Ledge, beyond Stratton Island, June 16, and slit open in the hope that it would sink in about 100 feet of water.

But instead, the wind and current washed it back to the mainland, where it arrived in some rocks at the extreme northern end of Scarborough Beach.

“It’s just caught in the currents around Southern Maine,” Jakush said.

Towing it would be futile without a large trawler, he said, which could take the carcass “very far” offshore. Rather than do that, Jakush said the whale will be towed out to an uninhabited island or ledge and tied down to reduce the likelihood that it will wash ashore again.

Despite the large number of incidents involving this whale, Jakush said it was the first large whale the Lifeline has responded to this year. He said there may be others out there unreported. “There are a lot of hidden coves and islands,” he said.

Jakush said there was no cause for alarm or concern about the rate of whale deaths this year. He said the Center for Coastal Studies had untangled a similar whale from fishing gear off Camp Ellis on June 3, and Center staff believe the dead whale is the same animal.

Jakush said a cause of death is still undetermined, and stressed that the impact of the entanglement is unknown. “It could have been the cause (of death). It may not have been,” he said.