Update, 6:20 p.m.: A second whale — a live baby — that washed ashore on Napeague on 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, 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."
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.
Update, 3:20 p.m.: The finback whale that washed up on a Napeague beach on Sunday morning will remain there until Monday morning, when the marine biologists plan to perform a necropsy.
Durham, of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, who arrived to assess the whale carcass at about 2 p.m., said the whale was an adult female, about 57-feet long.
She does not know yet what caused its death, as there are no external signs of blunt force trauma, though the whale's body came to rest on the shore on its left side. Ship strikes are the most commonly cause the deaths of whales that wash up in the area. "Right now, she's kind of suspicious," Durham said. Biologists took tissue samples Sunday afternoon.
Finbacks are documented in the waters off Long Island this time of year, though how close to the shore depends on the location of its food source. A finback whale washed up on a Breezy Point beach late last month. That whale, which was underweight, was alive when it initially washed up, but died. The whale turned out to have died of natural causes, including kidney disease and parasites, Durham said.
The finback that came ashore Sunday is of normal weight — between 40 and 50 tons, she said.
Durham thinks it has been dead no more than two weeks. The cold waters, she said, help refrigerate it from decomposing too much. Usually, she said the foundation is alerted by the Coast Guard or ships that a dead whale is floating around, but this time they received no calls before it washed up.
It has some scars on its fluke, or tail, evidence that it became entangled on a net sometimes in its life, Durham said. It also shows signs of scavengers — fish and birds.
Heavy equipment will have to move the whale closer to the dunes so that Durham and her team can perform the necropsy. They will examine its internal organs, dissecting the whale into about four pieces — which will also make it easier to remove from the beach.
Throngs of people went to take in the sight of the dead whale, many bringing their children. Some took pictures in front of it, others touched it skin, and even inside of its mouth.
"We haven't ruled out disease as a cause of death," Durham said, adding there is also decomposition bacteria.
Also, she noted that finback whales are endangered species and it is illegal to harvest any part of it.
It appears to have been dead for some time.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said Marine Patrol officers are stationed on the beach until the foundation arrives. "We will handle it procedurally and operationally, as we hae done for unfortunate whale deaths in the past," he said.
Highway and sanitation department officials went to the beach to assess the situation on Sunday morning. "We will need outside equipment to properly dispose of the whale, as soon as the remains are released," by the marine mammal experts, Wilkinson said.
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The South Fork has seen several whales wash up on the coast in recent years.
In August 2012, a 57-foot dead fin whale washed up just east of Tiana Beach in Hampton Bays, after it was seen floating out in the Atlantic Ocean earlier in the day. The whale, which was also badly decomposed, had injuries consistent with being struck by a ship.
An adult pygmy sperm whale was discovered dead on the shore in West Hampton Dunes in May of 2012. The 9-foot whale was underweight at about 800 pounds.
Back in July 2011, an injured sperm whale washed up on the rocky shore in Montauk. It died several hours later. A one-year-and-a-half old calf, it weighed 2.5 tons and measured 18 feet long, making the task of removing it extremely difficult. An excavator hoisted the whale off the rocky shore and placing it in a large Dumpster, which was then carted away so that a necropsy could be conducted before it was buried.
Many remember all too well the young humpback whale that became stranded on an East Hampton Village beach in March 2010. Despite attempts to save the animal, it was eventually euthanized.