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May 3, 2012 9:25 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Dead Pygmy Sperm Whale Washes Ashore In West Hampton Dunes

May 9, 2012 10:51 AM

An adult pygmy sperm whale that washed ashore in West Hampton Dunes Village last week most likely died two to three weeks earlier, and marine wildlife experts believe the cause of death was a bacterial infection suffered after both of its lower jaws were broken.

The female whale, which weighed in excess of 600 pounds and was approximately 9 feet long, was also pregnant at the time of her death, according to Kimberly Durham, the rescue program director at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. Ms. Durham, who heads the not-for-profit’s forensic department, conducted the necropsy on the whale on Saturday at the foundation’s facility in Riverhead.

“It was a really interesting case, in that she had suffered a pretty traumatic injury to both of her lower jaws,” Ms. Durham said on Monday afternoon. “The lower jaw was fractured and completely off. There was a lot of scar tissue. She was skinny, emaciated and it didn’t look like she was feeding well.”

She added that her post-mortem examination of the mammal was unable to conclude if the injury was caused by a predator, such as a shark, or a manmade object, like a boat.

“At this point, the cause of death was probably a secondary bacterial infection and not eating ... following a traumatic injury,” Ms. Durham said.

She also noted that the whale that washed ashore was not near-term, explaining that the incubation period for the species is around 11 months. Ms. Durham pointed out that the mammal was relatively young, noting that, based on the scarring on her ovaries, she most likely had had two calves in her life. Pygmy sperm whales have one calf at a time and typically give birth in the autumn and spring. She declined to estimate the age of the mammal.

Ms. Durham noted that another dead female pygmy whale washed ashore near Lido Beach in Nassau County in April 2011. That whale was also pregnant. The foundation’s records also show that two similar incidents were recorded in 2010. Both of those dead whales also were pregnant.

The whale in West Hampton Dunes was discovered by Village Trustee Catherine Woolfson and her 12-year-old son, Liam, while they were walking on the beach late in the afternoon last Wednesday, May 2. She explained Friday that they spotted the mammal in the break right behind their home on Dune Road.

“We got home from school and we do our usual scan of the beach ... and we saw something pink,” Ms. Woolfson said. “I had concern because it looked like some sort of mammal.”

At first, Ms. Woolfson said they were not sure if the whale was still alive, explaining that they spotted bubbles near the creature’s mouth. “We weren’t sure, so we splashed some water on it from the ocean. You could tell from the eyes that it was no longer with us.”

Officials with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation were contacted by Ms. Woolfson and Village Police Constable John Jacobs. Biologist Allison Chaillet with the Riverhead Foundation led the stranding team that was dispatched to retrieve the whale. Crews removed the mammal last Thursday afternoon, with assistance from Bruce Hubbard of Hubbard Contracting of Westhampton, whose employees had to manually carry the whale more than 500 feet to a flatbed truck on Dune Road, because it is piping plover season and vehicle beach access is limited.

While she was not there for the mammal’s removal, Ms. Woolfson said she saw pictures of the recovery operation. After trying nets that ended up breaking, volunteers utilized several pieces of wood and muscle to carry the creature to the pickup truck.

“They rolled it onto the wood and then lifted it and carried it the way that the pharaohs used to be carried,” Ms. Woolfson said.

Though she immediately realized that the creature was a whale, Ms. Woolfson said she was not sure of the species. “I never saw a snout like that,” she said. “It almost had the head of a beluga whale but had a pointy nose—so it didn’t make sense.”

Pygmy sperm whales are slightly larger than dolphins; most adults weigh between 800 and 900 pounds and can grow to about 11 feet in length. Their undersides are typically a creamy pinkish color, while their backs and sides are a bluish-gray. Pygmy sperm whales have between 20 and 32 teeth, all set in the lower jaw, and they primarily feed on cephalopods, including squid. They are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and it is believed that their main predators are great white sharks and killer whales.

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Make a crew of people lug a dead whale 500 feet because we can't ask a piping plover to move..amazing. It's nice when money is no object.
By The Real World (368), southampton on May 4, 12 8:16 AM
1 member liked this comment
Nailed it, Real World -- unbelievable!
By clam pie (161), Westhampton on May 4, 12 10:30 AM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By Nature (2966), Hampton Bays on May 4, 12 11:57 AM
1 member liked this comment
Apparently sarcasm is no longer allowed... let me try again.

Claim Pie and Real World - you two are really off base. The reason trucks aren't allowed on the beach is because of an endangered species - a species that is in peril almost entirely due to human's footprint and our "need" to drive on and develop the beach. The "cost" of removing this whale by hand was nominal - especially given that WHD taxpayers are footing the bill. You'd rather have nests of endangered species run over ...more
By Nature (2966), Hampton Bays on May 4, 12 4:05 PM
Good for you! I'm sad for the whale. Just one of God's little creatures who's life came to an end.
By SagHarborBob (91), Life is Good on May 4, 12 4:14 PM
Nature, You are joking right? What does more damage in that instance....a bunch of people (destroyers of all thing good) lugging a 800 pound whale 500 feet or backing up a truck the five hundred to make life easier? After someone in the group goes out on disability with a bad back it is guaranteed to cost more. Besides that Mrs. Lincoln...how was the play?
By The Real World (368), southampton on May 4, 12 10:13 PM
The Hampton Classic, Horse Show, Bridgehampton