BAR HARBOR – A 50-foot male sperm whale, believed to be dead for about two weeks, was collected by Allied Whale in Bar Harbor and necropsied on a Hulls Cove beach on Aug. 20.
The animal was estimated to weigh 50 tons, or 100,000 pounds. The head alone was estimated to weigh 30,000 pounds.
Because of the advanced decay of the carcass, it was uncertain whether the cause of death would ever be known, said Allied Whale director Sean Todd.
The necropsy itself was a fascinating exercise in logistics.
The site was a rocky, secluded beach. Joining in the effort were students, staffers and alumnae with Allied Whale and College of the Atlantic, as well students from other
Those who took on the job of flensing the highly aromatic whale and dismantling its skeleton were divided into four teams. Everyone around the carcass was outfitted with a protective suit, face mask, gloves, mud boots and eyewear. Anyone who came within the work area was required to have on boots, and to step into a basin of decontamination rinse whenever they left the scene, in order to prevent the spread of germs and disease. Those without boots could obtain booties before entering the area, and then dispose of them in a biohazard barrel when leaving. The masks were to mitigate the possibility of transferring zoonotic disease, a disease that normally exists in animals but that can infect humans.
The animal was found floating into Frenchman Bay, just off Schoodic Point. It was originally found by a fisherman, and later reported to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Allied Whale, COA’s marine mammal research group, was called in as the organization permitted by the National Marine Fisheries Service to respond to and examine any stranded or dead marine mammal. Allied Whale is one of three groups in Maine that responds to marine mammals in distress, and is a founding member of the Maine Strandings Collaborative and the Northeast Region Stranding Consortium. Allied Whale covers the coast from Rockland to the Canadian border.
The whale was towed to an offshore dock near COA on Aug. 14.
On Aug. 20, COA’s new research vessel, Osprey, towed the carcass to Hulls Cove. The animal came in at midnight, at high tide, in order to get the whale as high on the beach as possible.
The necropsy team arrived at around 6 a.m. Todd served as onsite coordinator. The team was led by Dan DenDanto and his assistant, and Osprey’s captain, Toby Stephenson, both long affiliated with Allied Whale.
Using knives, cutters worked at separating the flesh from the bone. Chunks of flesh were piled on tarpaulins or in buckets. BCM Construction of Northeast Harbor was on hand with an excavator to lift enormous chunks into a large rolloff. The cutters carefully dismantled the skeleton. Spectators, some holding their noses, watched from a nearby hill and pier.
As the tide lapped further up the beach, the animal’s head became swamped in the water. But the team was able to get the body out of the lapping waves by tying a rope from the flukes to the excavator, which hauled it out of the high-tide zone.
At times, students and staffers got themselves right on top of the carcass to get a better purchase on the flesh.
Also involved in the effort was a medical team, photography team, a NOAA law enforcement officer, who helped to leverage requests for equipment, a representative of the Department of Environmental Protection, to advise on boom deployment, and a group of willing go-fers. COA president Darron Collins was on hand for part of the time.
“It’s a phenomenal animal,” said Todd. “They’re chunky, they’re big, they’re greasy. You have to be very well prepared for an event like this.”
Stringent safety and scientific protocols were followed, said Todd.
“Personnel leading the dissection are highly trained and accredited,” he wrote in an information document. During the necropsy, he said, the team focused on two priorities. The first was on the collection of data that might include information that would lead to determination of cause of death. Such testing is a lengthy process, and sample analysis can frequently take months before an accurate ruling can be made, if any, he wrote.
The second priority was the collection of the skeleton, he said. The intention is to display the skeleton at the Bar Harbor Whale Museum.
Because of the nature of the creature, valued in past eras for its spermaceti oil, the beach quickly became greasy.
“These whales are famous for being greasy,” said Todd. “Just press the flesh, and it starts to exude oil. This is why they were so favored as animals to hunt the in 18th and 19th centuries.”
Sperm whales, like right whales, were sought after for their oil by Yankee whalers. The sperm whale was not only prized for its blubber oil, used in lamps, but also the spermaceti in its head, an unusually excellent lubricating oil for machinery.
Sperm whales are members of the taxonomic order Odontoceti, or toothed whales. They are named for the spermaceti organ, weighing on its own about 20,000 pounds, that rests at the front of the animal.
No one understands the true function of this organ, said Todd. It might play an important role in buoyancy; sperm whales are record-setting divers, diving as deep as 3,000 meters and perhaps as long as 90 minutes. Or the organ might be important for sound production; as a toothed whale, sperm whales echolocate to find and perhaps stun prey.
This was Allied Whale’s second sperm whale in six or seven years. In the interim, the organization has necropsied a number of baleen whales, including a humpback that was found floating between the Cranberry Isles and the Duck islands on June 28, and collected for necropsy by Allied Whale days later.
Marine mammals are federally protected animals in the United States.
Sperm whales “represent the mother of all whale cuts, because they are so heavy, they are so dense,” said Todd.
At 50 feet long, the animal was likely 20 to 30 years old – almost, but not quite fully grown, Todd said. A full-size sperm whale reaches 60 feet.
The whale was probably reproductively mature, but it might not have been siring because there is a hierarchy process – it would have had to beat out larger males for mates.
Sightings of sperm whales in coastal waters are extremely rare, as these whales are deep divers and generally range offshore. These whales are the largest living toothed animal, with the largest brain of any animal. Allied Whale scientists believe this whale has been dead for about two weeks, and drifted inshore with the currents.
Allied Whale scientists believe the whale drifted inshore with the currents. Of interest, though, is the current prevalence of squid in coastal waters, which may have brought the animal closer to shore prior to its death. Squid is a favorite prey of sperm whales.
“So it’s possible that this animal was attracted by the fact that there squid in the area,” Todd said. “Or it could have died offshore and simply have been pulled into this area.”
In 2006, Allied Whale collected a sperm whale that was clearly hit by a ship. Although it was unclear whether it was hit while alive, or after death, the skull was badly mangled.
Conversely, said Todd of the nearby whale, “With this gentleman, there was no obvious cause of death on the outside. No lesions. The jaw is still intact, which is very rare. It’s in remarkable condition.”
There is no telling what caused its death, he said, but possibilities include disease or unusual parasite load.
The necropsy was not only a scientific, but an educational exercise, he said, involving undergraduate and graduate students.
“College of the Atlantic is unique in its ability to include educational elements in such activities, providing invaluable training to students interested in careers in marine science,” Todd wrote.
Students are involved in the project from start to finish, he said at the beach.
“Students went out with our skipper on M/V Osprey to help collect the carcass. Students helped secure the animal on the beach. They’re the engine involved in cutting….Students will be involved in the composting process, in the articulation process and, finally, once this animal is displayed and we’ve written the material, we’ll have students as docents, interpreting the animal….That’s what I love about this college, because we give students a very practical, hands-on experience, and we’re training people who, when they graduate, will be actors, will go out into the world and will do something, they’ll know how to do it and they’ll have the confidence to do to it….They will be future scientists and future policy makers who will help look after our oceans.”
The hope is to use the sperm whale skeleton as a flashpoint for fundraising, to get donors interested in helping the Bar Harbor Whale Museum find a new home, Todd said. The museum went on hiatus when the building where it was housed, rent-free, was demolished. The museum’s specimens, including a number of whale skeletons, are in storage.
The presence of the museum has encouraged the collection of skeletons, he said.
“Whales are wonderful opportunities to teach the public about the importance of the ocean,” he said. “What better way to start that conversation than a 50-foot animal, this massive, beautiful animal, with this massive skull?”