Rare sperm whale strands on South Shore in Massachusetts
On Saturday, July 29, a sharp-eyed Plymouth, MA resident saw a highly unusual whale species close to shore and called Whale and Dolphin Conservation's (WDC’s) Marine Animal Rescue and Response hotline. The whale was identified as an endangered sperm whale.
WDC’s team of responders immediately deployed and found the live sperm whale just off the rocky cliff of Manomet Point. The whale was close to shore in shallow water, surrounded by sharp, seaweed-covered rocks. This hazard, paired with the possibility of the whale thrashing – a common behavior among stressed, live-stranded cetaceans – ultimately led the team to determine the situation was too dangerous for intervention. This whale did not appear to be showing signs of significant distress, and a decision was made to wait and see if the animal would return to deeper water within the tidal cycle.
Plymouth Police, Harbormasters, and Massachusetts Environmental Police helped WDC monitor the animal and provided on-water updates for the growing crowd of concerned spectators who gathered to see the rare event. A thunderstorm and tornado warning in the area thwarted efforts to monitor the whale.
WDC planned to return at sunrise with hopes that the animal would be in a more accessible location for a veterinary evaluation which would likely have shown that humane euthanasia was a kinder option than a release which would only prolong suffering. Sperm whales are rarely seen in waters less than 600 feet deep.
Reports on social media of an individual who intervened to “free” the whale after 9 PM surfaced later that evening. Trained stranding responders recognize the good intentions of the public but also know that distressed animals can move unpredictably in the water, leading to serious human injury or death. Sadly, WDC received a report that the whale was deceased on Duxbury Beach, approximately 12 hours after its purported release. On Monday, WDC and its partners from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Seacoast Science Center, the University of New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, and UMass Amherst conducted a necropsy (animal autopsy) on the 17.5-foot male whale. Support and assistance for the necropsy were generously provided by the Duxbury Beach Reservation. Results from the necropsy are pending, but the team found the whale's stomach filled with marine debris, including large sheets of plastic and a balloon.
“People often ask what they can do to help save whales,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, WDC Executive Director. “Properly disposing of trash and picking up discarded debris is such a simple yet important step anyone can take to save marine animals.”
The whale's skeleton is being shared with the University of Massachusetts for further examination.
This work was done under a stranding agreement with NOAA Fisheries and under Permit Number #18786.
What should you do if you see a stranded, distressed, or dead marine mammal?
If you are in the area of Weymouth through Plymouth, call WDC’s Marine Animal Rescue & Response Hotline at (617) 688-6872. For other locations from Maine through Virginia, local stranding network partners can be contacted through NOAA’s stranding hotline: (866) 755-6622.
Sarah McCormack, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, (617) 688-6872, [email protected]
Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, (508) 451-3853, [email protected]