Two whale necropsies were performed in as many days, after two whales washed up Sunday on the ocean beach on Napeague.
"At first, I thought someone was playing a prank on us," Kim Durham, the rescue program coordinator at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, said on Tuesday. "It was bizarre, but these two animals had nothing to do with each other."
Aside from being two different species of whales, Durham believes their deaths were from different causes.
Warning: A few of the photos of the whale being removed from the beach are graphic.
The larger whale, a female finback that washed up dead on Sunday morning, was struck by a ship. While on first visual inspection the whale showed no signs of being hit, when marine biologists got a look at the side it was laying on when it was first beached, the trauma became obvious.
"She had significant trauma on a dorsal and left lateral side," Durham said, adding that it was "extensively bruised," consistent with being hit by a ship. Severe blunt force trauma is the likely cause of death, she said.
On Monday, the necropsy was performed at the beach on the 57-foot, 40- to 50-ton whale.
A 7-ton excavator didn't have enough power to drag the whale out of the surf, where it spent the night. The biologists waited until low tide and then had it rolled over, she said. That process caused some skeletal damage, so it was not clear how much skeletal damage was from the ship-strike, Durham added.
Durham also found "many of the internal organs missing" due to significant decomposition. Though she still believes the whale had been dead for two weeks at the most, she said internal organs decompose at a faster rate than the whale's exterior. "The best way I can explain it is that the inside of a whale is like a large microwave," she said.
The biologists collected tissue for pathologists to confirm the hemorrhaging or bruising is likely from a ship strike.
Also found during the necropsy were liver parasites, large intestine parasites, and kidney parasites, all of which were likely within the normal range. Testing these findings allows researchers to further understand whales. "We only know from them what we examine when they are beached," she said.
The whale, broken up into smaller, more manageable pieces, was carted away to the East Hampton Town landfill for incineration.
Baby Whale Suffering
As for the young pygmy sperm whale that washed up later on Sunday afternoon, Durham said on Tuesday that she was still in the process of performing the necropsy. She offered preliminary findings that the whale was in "very bad condition," before it was euthanized at the beach.
The male whale — a yearling, less than 2 years old — was suffering from severe peritonitis, or inflammation of its intestines. Durham found severe ulceration in its gastrointestinal tract and parasites in the whale's stomach chambers, in addition to "a lot of blood" from hemorrhaging, likely from the large ulcerations.
"He would have been a challenging candidate for rehab," Durham said.
She will continue to look for the cause of what made him so sick.
"He had made that transition to solid foods" and away from nursing, Durham said, adding that she found remnants of squid in its stomach. Out of its natural habitat, in warmer waters and offshore, the whale was thin. "He certainly wasn't eating what he should have been," she said.
Pygmy sperm whales are usually found as far north as the Carolinas, but are more prevalent in Florida and the Gulf area.
If they had been able to rehabilitate him — a process that would have taken many months — "NOAA fisheries wouldn't have permitted releasing him up here," she said. The whale would have to be transported down south and offshore. "Not to say it couldn't be done," she said, but the entire process' costs would have been "mind numbing."
Although it is rare to have two whales wash up so close together, Durham said she does not believe one is related to the other.
"Neither had any evidence of underwater activity," such as sonar exercises. When the Navy conducts such exercises — which is currently being done off the coast of Virginia — they notify NOAA fisheries, which are the administrators of the Riverhead Foundation's program, which in turn notifies them. Sometimes, dolphins will wash up with hemorrhaging in their ears.
Asked if the loud explosive sounds heard intermittently over several months in Montauk could have anything to the whales' death, Durham was resolute that there was other evidence to explain their conditions.