Updated July 8
A video taken on Chappy’s East Beach Friday appears to show what an expert now says is a dwarf whale reeling from a great white shark strike. The marine mammal can be seen flailing at the water’s edge in a slick of its own blood before it pushes off to deeper water and surges away.
After initially reviewing the footage with his team, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries shark expert Greg Skomal said it was probable that a white shark struck a porpoise. Upon receiving additional footage and conferring with several other experts, Skomal said the consensus now is the injured animal is a dwarf sperm whale.
A shark isn’t visible in the footage; however, by isolating frames, Skomal’s team was able to locate a crescent-shaped bite wound “indicative of really sharp cutting teeth,” he said.
Skomal completely discounted the possibility an orca was behind the bite, and said a mako wasn’t likely. “We don’t expect a mako to be that close to the beach,” he said. Furthermore, given the type of teeth mako have, he said they tend to tear flesh rather than cut it.
“We have to assume it would be a great white shark,” he said. Great whites are known to go after porpoises and dolphins, he said. “Any small whale is vulnerable.”
Skomal said dwarf sperm whales are known to eject their stomach contents when stressed or endangered in a process called “inking.” There had been debate about whether the tint to the water was vomitus from this process as opposed to blood, but it has been deemed blood.
Since additional footage appears to have been shot the previous day, Skomal said it’s now unclear if the whale was hit along the shoreline or elsewhere.
“I think there’s a lot of mystery to be solved here,” he said.
Marine biologist John Chilsolm, Skomal’s longtime assistant, said the dwarf sperm whale is “the smallest living species of whale in the world” and looks similar to the harbor porpoise.
Chisholm, who investigates shark sightings and marine predator/prey interactions, said the whale “is not by any means a closed case.”
In July 2009, Chisholm said a dwarf sperm whale washed up at Sconset on Nantucket “with a clear white shark bite.”
As the Nantucket Mirror and Inquirer reported at the time, the Nantucket Marine Mammal Stranding Team responded.
White sharks feed on seals close to shore regularly on the Cape, Skomal said. “These sharks are cruising close to the shoreline,” he said. He described the shoreline as a sort of natural fence. Sharks will try to pin seals against that fence, he said. When the animal was still thought to be a porpoise, he suggested such a maneuver by a shark may have occurred. But that scenario is up in the air now.
The video was taken by Lilly Patterson. Patterson was out for a stroll on East Beach with her family, looking at seals out in the water. As Patterson and her uncle were following a seal down the beach, they spotted what ended up being a dwarf whale surrounded by a lot of blood.
“The waves had just brought him up to shore, and I thought it was going to get beached, and I was like, ‘What are we going to do, are we going to have to push this thing back in?’” Patterson said.
While Patterson and her family saw seals and the whale, they’re not so sure about a shark sighting.
As the whale was flailing around, Patterson noticed a large gash along its stomach. “I was so surprised. We’ve been going to the beach on Martha’s Vineyard for so long, but we’ve only ever really seen seals, nothing like that. It was crazy,” she said.
White shark activity in general has been on an upswing in the region over the past decade as gray seal populations have swelled. Seals are a diet mainstay of white sharks.
Updated to include more information, including an update on what experts believe the species is at this point in the investigation.