Endangered whale strands itself on Masonboro Island

Updated: Jan. 7, 2019 at 5:17 AM EST
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MASONBORO ISLAND, NC (WECT) - A team with the UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Program were called to Masonboro Island Sunday after reports of a stranded whale.

Upon arrival, the team encountered a young Sei Whale, which is a type of Baleen Whale.

“It very rarely strands in North Carolina. It’s a very poorly understood Baleen whale, we don’t know much about it. It’s very rare to strand in North Carolina,” said Ann Pabst, a member of the Marine Mammal Stranding Program and Professor of Marine Biology at UNCW.

Pabst could only recall one other Sei Whale stranding in North Carolina dating back to the 1990s.

She said this type of whale is an endangered species, and was about 16 and a half feel long. Adult Sei Whales can grow to be 65 feet.

After examining the whale and consulting with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the on-site volunteer veterinarian made the call to euthanize the whale.

“This animal was very, very thin. It wasn’t with its mom which it should have been. No food in the stomach, it was clear this animal hadn’t been eating for a while," Pabst said.

After heavily sedating the whale, the volunteer veterinarian euthanized it. Bill McLellan, the state stranding coordinator and Professor of Marine Biology at UNCW, carried out a necropsy of the whale.

“We did a necropsy, which is an animal autopsy. So, we do autopsies on humans and necropsies on other species. That’s like a post-mortem exam. During that examination we were able to collect blood samples and tissue samples and we will use that to try to better understand the health of the animal and what may have contributed to its death,” Pabst said.

Pabst also explained why it is necessary to euthanize whales that strand themselves on shore, citing a few reasons.

“When we see these particular species on our shore, we know already that they’re not where they are supposed to be. On top of that they often come to the shore in highly debilitated states. So they’re already ill but in this case we don’t know if the animal was ill or not able to feed,” says Pabst.

Pabst also explained the physical implications of washing ashore.

“The other issue is these animals live in the water and the buoyancy force of water supports their body weight, so their skeleton is very, weak. They do not have strong skeleton like we do to support our body weight and so they never feel their body weight. And they’re exceptionally heavy animals. So when an animal lands on the beach, and experiences their own body weight for the first time, that weight can actually literally crush and damage internal organs,” she said.

While performing the necropsy, McLellan did find a black, plastic trash bag in the mouth of the whale.

“It was just a piece of trash that the animal found in the water. It’s so important to be really careful about what we put in the water because what we put in the water can end up in the mouth of a whale. We can’t say that that was the cause of the mortality and quite frankly I don’t think it was the cause, but it certainly didn’t help the animal in its debilitated state,” Pabst said.

During the necropsy, the whale’s carcass is cut into pieces and will wash back into the ocean or decompose on the beach.

Pabst also noted graduate students were able to train on-site. The team was also helped by the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, the Masonboro Island Reserve, and citizens who were on the beach.

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