Wildlife veterinarians from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday euthanized a young humpback whale that had swum into Moriches Bay over the weekend and became stranded on a sandbar just offshore in Harts Cove in East Moriches.
Throughout the week large crowds of people had gathered near the end of Moriches Island Road, the closest point to where the whale was stranded about 300 yards offshore.
When the whale would flap its tail, cheers would come up from the shoreline, along with shouts of “Free the whale!”
Scientists had prevented several individuals who had wanted to try to free the whale from reaching the sandbar. Approaching or interacting with any federally protected marine mammal, like humpback whales, is illegal.
Biologists from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research tried to free the whale on Sunday and Monday but were unsuccessful.
But barring others from making their own attempts drew heated criticism from some of those who think they could have done better.
A Facebook group called “Rescue Group” was formed and fed a stream of increasingly angry and vindictive posts directed at the Riverhead Foundation and NOAA as the whale languished on the sandbar.
On Wednesday, NOAA released a statement outlining the effort it and the Riverhead Foundation had taken to free the whale and emphasizing that more aggressive efforts, however well-intended, would likely have been unsuccessful, could have injured the whale and would have put people in harm’s way.
“Marine mammal biologists warn that efforts to haul whales off beaches can cause more harm to the animal as strong pressure on the tail or flippers can result in internal injuries,” a statement released by NOAA on Wednesday afternoon said.
The biologists said that a healthy whale would typically be able to free itself from a sandbar over normal tide cycles, and that while the whale had appeared to be healthy while it was swimming in the bay, a stranding of this type usually would indicate an underlying health issue.
At a press conference at the Moriches Bay Coast Guard Station on Wednesday evening, biologists and NOAA officials said that all of their protocols call for allowing at least three tide cycles for the animal to “self rescue.”
“The best thing for the animal is to free itself,” said Sarah Wilkin, National Stranding and Emergency Response Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources. “If it is healthy, it should be able to get itself off. If it can’t, it’s probably an indication of an underlying health issue and … it will re-strand.”
They emphasized several times how difficult moving the animal would be. The whale, they estimated, weighed as much as 30,000 pounds. Trying to pull it off the sandbar could dislocate the animal’s tail or pectoral flippers, Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer with NOAA, said.
But onlookers on Wednesday were not assuaged by the reality of trying to move an animal that weighs tens of thousands of pounds.
Tara Lewin of New Jersey was on the shore in East Moriches on Wednesday. She said she grew up in Blue Point and, on a holiday trip back, made time to come to see the whale in Harts Cove.
“I’ve been on the bay my whole life,” she said. “This type of situation is upsetting. I grew up appreciating marine life.”
Her biggest concern, she said, was the delay in action by authorities to help the whale once it swam into the enclosed cove–which was reflected in the handmade sign she held, which read: “No Red Tape, Save The Whale.” “If it had received help from day one, it would have had more of a chance. Because of the delay, we’ll never know.” She added, “I’m not angry, just upset.”
She hadn’t yet given up hope, even as word reached the beach on Wednesday morning that the decision already had been made to euthanize the animal. “I was so happy to see its tail go up,” she said. “It went up so high.”
James Daniels, a 12-year-old from East Moriches, came to the beach with his parents, James and Diana Daniels. It was the first time he’d ever seen a whale, and his only suggestion was, “They should try to help it more.” His mother, Diana, offered, “I hate to see it suffer,” as the tail moved once more, the splash visible from shore.
Dailyn Fleet of Center Moriches held a sign with a pointed message: “Whale Lives Matter.”
Late on Wednesday, State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle said he would call for a State Senate hearing to review policies regarding rescuing such stranded animals and sided with the emotional calls of residents in casting doubt on the decisions made by the marine scientists.
“It’s with great sadness, dismay and frustration to learn that the NOAA veterinarian euthanized the whale today,” Mr. LaValle said in a statement, adding that he had been “involved with efforts to free the whale.”
“We are supposed to be the stewards of the earth. In this instance, we failed miserably,” his statement read. “When situations such as this occur, we need take fast corrective actions. Even if the efforts prove not to be ultimately successful, it’s our human obligation to attempt to save nature’s mammals and other animals.”
Executive Editor Joseph Shaw contributed to this story.