LONG ISLAND, NY -- Update, 6:20 p.m.: The second whale — a live baby — that washed ashore on a local beach Sunday afternoon was euthanized, in large because of the lack of resources to handle stranded, wild whales.
Kim Durham, the rescue program coordinator at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, said the male pygmy sperm whale was still breathing when discovered in the surf on Napeague, about one mile down from where a dead finback whale washed ashore earlier on Sunday.
Marine biologists decided to euthanize the young whale for several reasons.
"It showed signs of illness," Durham said, adding that the Riverhead Foundation had no tank available to rehabilitate it. "It was a very sad afternoon," she said.
The whale, which was about 5 feet long and 150 pounds and believed to be a yearling, showed poor body condition. Durham said its body was "sunken in behind the neck," a place biologists assess whales. It also had skin legions, which can indicate infection, she said.
Pygmy sperm whales, young or old, are off-shore species and found in warmer waters. "They are not supposed to be this close to shore," she said. "It is rare to have a pygmy sperm whale beached, whether it was dead or alive."
An adult pygmy sperm whale was discovered dead on the shore in West Hampton Dunes in May 2012. The 9-foot whale was underweight at about 800 pounds.
A big part of the decision to euthanize instead of rehabilitate, Durham said, is that Riverhead Foundation only has one 30-foot diameter tank at its facility at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, which is currently being inhabited by a harbor porpoise. "We don't have the resources for it," Durham said. "We can't put two species together in one tank and also we can't admit a new species into a tank with another that is already being rehabilitated."
Had it been another harbor porpoise, as was initially reported, they may have been able to rescue it and house it in a smaller tank, Durham said.
The harbor porpoise the foundation is currently rehabilitating was rescued from Maine. The Riverhead Foundation is the only tank for such mammals from Maine to Florida. It was transported to the Riverhead Foundation on Oct. 25, and is doing "remarkably well." It's release is expected within the month.
Sunday's occurances left many asking: Is it too much of a coincidence that two whales washed up in the same area?
"It really probably is," Durham said. While it is rare, Durham said it may be explained by the currents. Based on decomposition, the finback has been dead in the ocean one to two weeks, coming ashore where the current left it, she said. "The same could be said for the pygmy, if it was weakened, it's going to go where the current is going to take it."
The pygmy whale was euthanized in the "dolphin ambulance" that responded. A necropsy will be performed on Tuesday, as biologists will be performing a necropsy of the finback on Monday.
Previously: While examining the dead whale that washed ashore on Napeague, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation received another call about a live mammal that washed up nearby.
It was reported that a harbor porpoise had washed up at about 3 p.m., but it turned out to be a very young whale — possibly a dwarf sperm or pygmy whale — about a mile or so west down the beach from where the dead finback whale is located.
The baby whale was still breathing.
Durham was not immediately available to comment on the baby whale's condition or the foundation's plan of action.
A rescue team from the Riverhead Foundation was dispatched with its "dolphin ambulance," so that it could transport what it thought was going to be a harbor porpoise. It was unclear what the foundation would do with the baby whale.
Harbor porpoises, which are typically three to four feet in length and look like a dolphin except for a blunt beak, are found in the cold waters. The foundation is currently rehabilitating one in its tanks in Riverhead, Durham said.
Check back for more information when it becomes available.