Marine biologists said they were awed to learn that the dead, nearly 48-foot-long humpback whale that washed ashore in East Quogue last week was a leviathan celebrity of sorts, one that researchers have been tracking for almost her entire life, which spanned more than four decades.
In fact, researchers even named the female whale “Istar,” after “Ishtar,” the goddess of fertility, as they have tracked at least 11 of her offspring since the 1970s, and almost a dozen of her grandchildren.
Kim Durham, a biologist and rescue program director for the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, explained this week that her staffers were unfamiliar with Istar’s celebrity until they photographed the underside of her ventral flukes—or tail—while performing a necropsy. The tail displays unique pigmentation patterns that are used to identify the mammals, much like human fingerprints, she explained.
The photographs are routinely sent to biologists at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts, which compiles data for research on marine mammals. Fifteen minutes after receiving them, the biologists contacted the foundation to share the news.
“We have had a number of whales that we have done this for, and we’ve never gotten a hit,” Ms. Durham said on Tuesday, commenting on the remarkable nature of the discovery. “We usually don’t have that aspect of the story. Usually, my story is, ‘OK, what happened to this animal? Why is this animal dead?’ It’s almost just like I’m closing her book.”
It turns out that researchers at the Provincetown Center have been tracking Istar since the 1970s, when she was first identified along with her first known calf. In addition to documenting her reproductive cycle, researchers know that Istar was at least 41 years old. Ms. Durham noted that adult humpback whales are known to live to 50 and, in some cases, longer.
Members of the public who have been following Istar on her journeys, checking up on her when she returned time and time again to the Northeast, posted videos and photos of the whale on social media sites. A quick Google search testifies to the wealth of data collected on her long life.
Humpback whales, though endangered, are not uncommon in northeastern waters. Ms. Durham said they are often spotted off Long Island on their journey north to their feeding grounds off Cape Cod and the Gulf of Maine.
Istar probably weighed between 30 and 35 tons, and had been dead for at least a week before local residents spotted her in the surf near Triton Lane on April 17, according to Ms. Durham.
She added that a cause of death has not yet been determined, partially due to the decomposed state of the carcass. But biologists did find several skull fractures, suggesting that Istar might have been accidentally struck by a large boat. Ms. Durham said they would have liked to have examined her ovaries, but they had been too severely decomposed.
Dozens of community members gathered last Thursday morning to watch as biologists from the foundation, as well as students from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, performed the necropsy.
Friends Raquel Simpson and Samantha Carr came from Coram and Middle Island, respectively, after seeing a picture of Istar on Facebook.
“It’s crazy,” Ms. Simpson said. “It’s just crazy, because you don’t see this every day.”
The Southampton Town Trustees brought in a payloader, which was used first to drag the mammal out of the water and onto land. That plan, however, was foiled when the cable used to drag it ripped the tail off the carcass. They then rolled the massive mammal ashore using the payloader, and attached a cable to its jaw to peel the outer layer of skin back, releasing steam from the innards, which were insulated by a healthy layer of blubber, much to the shock—and curiosity—of bystanders.
James and Mary Ann Donohue walked through the sand under the afternoon sun to see their first whale in their 44 years as residents of the hamlet, although many have washed up on local beaches. “Just never made it down,” said Mr. Donohue, who was clearly excited over the discovery. “But we’re retired now.”
Rob DiGiovanni, the director and a senior biologist with the foundation, said the operation will cost around $10,000 in total, including the man hours needed to perform the necropsy and bury the whale near the dunes, which was completed late last Thursday evening.
Though her death was a bit sad, Ms. Durham said Istar’s story was a good reminder of the merit of compiling data on marine mammals and a great example of volunteer and nonprofits combining resources and efforts to learn more about their lives.
“She’s part of the ecosystem now,” she said.