Endangered whale washes ashore dead

Beachgoers spotted a 20-foot right whale floating down the beach.

A team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare examined the right whale carcass. —Amanda Lucidi

With only 500 right whales still swimming in the ocean, finding one of the endangered species dead and floating in Edgartown Great Pond is bound to garner attention.

“A right whale is such a rare creature, even if you have one it’s a big deal,” Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies, told The Times in a phone conversation.

Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall recovered the decomposing remains, securing the carcass on South Beach with the help of Julie Russell of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank. Mr. Bagnall says recovering the animal was much easier than the recovery process for the whale last July.

Misty Niemeyer, the International Fund for Animal Welfare necropsy coordinator, and her team spent the afternoon taking tissues samples from the whale with foot-long curved knives and hooks to peel back layers of the whale’s body.

Mr. Mayo described the death of the whale as critical, especially considering the group of right whales recently found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The level of decay will make it difficult to identify any more obvious causes of death — like markings from ropes or propellers. Two of the whales found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were killed by entanglement; two others may have been killed by a boat strike.

If no one can pin down the cause of the other whale deaths last month, Mr. Mayo said, he is concerned the issue can’t be properly addressed.

Back in Edgartown, the group with Ms. Niemeyer kneeled in the sand, peeling back more layers of the whale, photographing each portion.

“Flipper bones are really good for genetics,” Ms. Niemeyer said to her team. With DNA, researchers can potentially narrow down more details about the whale, like gender. Getting to those details takes time in a lab.

“Here on the Islands we have a chance to see one of the rarest animals, one of the biggest animals, and also in many respects one of the most mysterious and charismatic,” said Mr. Mayo.

The right whale was buried on the beach later in the afternoon.