After a 7.5-ton humpback whale was found on the sand in Kure Beach Wednesday morning, a team made up of scientists from the University of North Carolina – Wilmington’s Marine Mammal Stranding Unit, students from the school’s marine biology program and researchers from the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher performed a necropsy on the animal.
The whale was confirmed to be a young male, approximately one to two years of age. The animal weighed 15,000 pounds and measured just under nine meters (about 27 feet) in length.
Scientists first checked for signs of entanglement or other external injuries before opening up the animal. According to Robin Nalepa, a spokeswoman for the aquarium, no lesions were found in whale’s mouth, which would have indicated entanglement in fishing lines or nets. Though the whale was covered in mites or lice, there was no other external damage.
“There were no indications that the whale was struck by any vessels,” said William McClellan, who heads the Marine Mammal Stranding Program.
The insides of the whale, however, showed signs of a very sick animal.
“A significant number of parasites were found in the intestines, and overall the whale had an unhealthy gastrointestinal tract,” Nalepa said. “There were also parasites called crassicauda found in its kidneys, causing major renal damage.”
Though an official cause of death has yet to be confirmed, the infestation of parasites that led to renal failure was a major factor in the animal’s demise.
“About sixty percent of its kidney was not functioning. The blood supply was blocked from getting to the kidneys,” said McClellan. “Basically the animal was debilitated and clearly not eating well.”
McClellan said they also found white froth in the animal’s lungs and throat, indicating that the whale was alive when it washed onshore and died a slow death.
Tissue samples were taken and will be sent off to labs for further examination. Results from those tests will take a few weeks.
Some of those samples were still being bagged and labeled Wednesday evening at the Oriole Burevitch Laboratory on UNCW’s campus.
“It’s always really cool to work on a large whale,” said Tiffany Bateman, a student working toward her Ph.D in marine biology who has worked on large mammals before. “There’s so much to learn.”
For Jackie Kroeger and Amelia Johnson, it was their first time performing a necropsy on a big whale, and they were thrilled with the opportunity.
“It was an amazing experience being out there,” said Johnson, an undergrad in the marine biology department. “It’s not every day you get to work on a large whale.”
“There’s always something new to learn,” said Kroeger, who is working toward her master’s degree in marine biology. “It’s just a great opportunity.”
Ann Pabst, a UNCW professor in the marine biology department, said getting through the entire day was a team effort, from the time the call about the whale came in before 6 a.m. Wednesday to the time they got back to campus in the evening.
“We really appreciate everyone helping us out, from the town of Kure Beach and their police department, to the contractors that helped moved the animal, to the folks from the aquarium who were with us for the necropsy,” said Pabst. “It was a big partnership, and we couldn’t have done it without them.”
According to Pabst, staff from the town of Kure Beach took charge of moving the whale’s body off the part of the beach where they performed the necropsy. It was taken to a different, unknown location for burial.