Dead Humpback Whale Floats Into Shinnecock Bay; Blunt Force Trauma Is the Likely Cause of Death - 27 East

Dead Humpback Whale Floats Into Shinnecock Bay; Blunt Force Trauma Is the Likely Cause of Death

Dead Humpback Whale Floats Into Shinnecock Bay
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Dead Humpback Whale Floats Into Shinnecock Bay

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.    DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.    DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.    DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.    DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.    DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.    DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.    DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.    DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.  The whale was beached to the west of the inlet so a necropsy could be performed. It will then be buried.  DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. The whale was beached to the west of the inlet so a necropsy could be performed. It will then be buried. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.  The whale was beached to the west of the inlet so a necropsy could be performed. It will then be buried.  DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. The whale was beached to the west of the inlet so a necropsy could be performed. It will then be buried. DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon.  The whale was beached to the west of the inlet so a necropsy could be performed. It will then be buried.  DANA SHAW

A decomposing male humpback whale floated into Shinnecock Bay through the Shinnecock Inlet and had to be towed back out on Thursday afternoon. The whale was beached to the west of the inlet so a necropsy could be performed. It will then be buried. DANA SHAW

Kitty Merrill on Jun 2, 2023

Preliminary indications following a necropsy performed on the 47-foot-long male humpback whale that floated through the Shinnecock Inlet and into Shinnecock Bay on Thursday, June 1, show blunt force trauma as a possible cause of death.

Robert DiGiovanni from the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, or AMSEAS, was on the beach undertaking the postmortem task on Friday, and he noted that the first findings are consistent with what researchers have been finding often during what he described as unusual mortality events that have been happening for the last couple of years.

Tissue samples sent to labs across the country will help determine if the approximately 42 -year-old animal died after a vessel strike or if the strike occurred after the whale was already dead. When it was spotted, it was already significantly decomposed.

Also on Thursday, the AMSEAS team was called to examine another whale that had been towed from Raritan Bay in lower New York Bay to Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. While preliminary results also seem to indicate the 28-foot-long female died of blunt force trauma consistent with a vessel strike, DiGiovanni said the two deaths are not related; the Jersey whale appeared to have perished more recently than the Shinnecock whale.

Vessel strikes and entanglements have been contributing to an uptick in strandings and deaths in the news, and responding to the events requires a large team, the scientist explained.

In Southampton last week, responders had to get the whale to the beach. It had floated into the inlet on the flood tide and was towed out on the slack tide. Then, heavy equipment from the Suffolk County Department of Public Works hauled it up onto the beach just west of the inlet. It was a challenge, with the deceased baleen topping the scales near 30,000 pounds, DiGiovanni said.

Once tissue samples and the examination were concluded on the beach, the samples were sent off for closer study, to determine whether the death was caused by biological factors, as was the case with the Minke whale that washed up near Cupsogue Beach about two weeks ago. In all, DiGiovanni estimated the boots on the ground — or sand — operation can take between six and 18 people toiling 12 to 14 hours.

“We had a lot of resources on the scene,” he said, reporting response from Southampton Town Bay Constables, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Southampton Town Police, County Parks officials, and the Shinnecock Nation.

Whale strandings have been on the rise, as have sightings of humpback whales, plus such whale/human interaction as vessel strikes.

Sometimes, it goes the other way around.

DiGiovanni noted the report, in 2019, of a boater who had a significant fright while sailing between Moriches Bay and the Shinnecock Inlet. A whale breached right in front of his boat, then landed on its bow. “It scared the heck out of him,” DiGiovanni recalled.

While increasing in number, whale/human interactions have been recorded for centuries. The true story of the sperm whale strike of the Essex in the 1800s inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

There have been more humpback whales seen locally in recent times. Several factors could contribute to the phenomenon. Their population has been increasing in general since whaling moratoriums were first put in place in the 1980s.

More available food sources could also be a factor. The scientist likened the increase in humpback sightings to visits to a buffet: When there’s lots of food, a diner sticks around; when there isn’t, he or she moves on.

“When you have more food in the area, you probably have more animals in the area,” he said.

The Shinnecock whale had been tagged and was monitored as it traveled down the New England coast. It apparently had been dead for some time and showed evidence of shark predation.

More whales means the potential for more harrowing interactions for both man and beast.

DiGiovanni dismissed one theory: that the construction of offshore wind farms is behind the strandings and blunt force trauma causes of death. He said he has seen no evidence of that, and emphasized that strandings predate the construction of such farms. In other words, whales and strandings have been around longer than the wind farms.

Blunt force trauma deaths have been evident for the last six or seven years, according to DiGiovanni. He reported seeing whales with evidence of vessel strikes all the way back to 2001.

For AMSEAS, since 2016, the organization has responded to 87 cases, while there have been about 370 dead whales analyzed in the Northwest Atlantic. The demand on labs that conduct tests on necrotic tissue samples means it sometimes takes a while to get a final determination on the cause of death. DiGiovanni noted that results from tests on a young sperm whale that stranded last fall have yet to be finalized.

Seeing more whales in the area means they can be more susceptible to threats. “Potential interactions can happen,” AMSEAS’s lead scientist said.

Humpback whales have the longest migration of any mammal on the planet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website. Some populations swim 5,000 miles from tropical breeding grounds to colder, more productive feeding grounds. They feed on krill and small fish, straining huge volumes of ocean water through their sieve-like baleen plates and eat up to 1.5 tons of food a day. A portion of the Shinnecock whale’s baleen was located up the beach from where it was hauled up.

Their scientific name is Megaptera novaeangliae, which means “big wing of New England,” a moniker giving a nod to their giant pectoral fins, which can grow up to 16 feet long, and their appearance off the coast of New England, where European whalers first encountered them.

While the breach wasn’t fun for that one boater, humpbacks are a favorite for whale watchers because they are so active — jumping out of the water and slapping the surface with their pectoral fins or tails. Their giant pectoral fins can grow up to 16 feet long.

Humpbacks usually range from 39 to 52 feet in length and weigh approximately 40 tons. They can live as long as 90 years.

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