An adult pygmy sperm whale that washed ashore in West Hampton Dunes Village last week most likely died two to three weeks earlier, and marine wildlife experts believe the cause of death was a bacterial infection suffered after both of its lower jaws were broken.
The female whale, which weighed in excess of 600 pounds and was approximately 9 feet long, was also pregnant at the time of her death, according to Kimberly Durham, the rescue program director at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. Ms. Durham, who heads the not-for-profit’s forensic department, conducted the necropsy on the whale on Saturday at the foundation’s facility in Riverhead.
“It was a really interesting case, in that she had suffered a pretty traumatic injury to both of her lower jaws,” Ms. Durham said on Monday afternoon. “The lower jaw was fractured and completely off. There was a lot of scar tissue. She was skinny, emaciated and it didn’t look like she was feeding well.”
She added that her post-mortem examination of the mammal was unable to conclude if the injury was caused by a predator, such as a shark, or a manmade object, like a boat.
“At this point, the cause of death was probably a secondary bacterial infection and not eating … following a traumatic injury,” Ms. Durham said.
She also noted that the whale that washed ashore was not near-term, explaining that the incubation period for the species is around 11 months. Ms. Durham pointed out that the mammal was relatively young, noting that, based on the scarring on her ovaries, she most likely had had two calves in her life. Pygmy sperm whales have one calf at a time and typically give birth in the autumn and spring. She declined to estimate the age of the mammal.
Ms. Durham noted that another dead female pygmy whale washed ashore near Lido Beach in Nassau County in April 2011. That whale was also pregnant. The foundation’s records also show that two similar incidents were recorded in 2010. Both of those dead whales also were pregnant.
The whale in West Hampton Dunes was discovered by Village Trustee Catherine Woolfson and her 12-year-old son, Liam, while they were walking on the beach late in the afternoon last Wednesday, May 2. She explained Friday that they spotted the mammal in the break right behind their home on Dune Road.
“We got home from school and we do our usual scan of the beach … and we saw something pink,” Ms. Woolfson said. “I had concern because it looked like some sort of mammal.”
At first, Ms. Woolfson said they were not sure if the whale was still alive, explaining that they spotted bubbles near the creature’s mouth. “We weren’t sure, so we splashed some water on it from the ocean. You could tell from the eyes that it was no longer with us.”
Officials with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation were contacted by Ms. Woolfson and Village Police Constable John Jacobs. Biologist Allison Chaillet with the Riverhead Foundation led the stranding team that was dispatched to retrieve the whale. Crews removed the mammal last Thursday afternoon, with assistance from Bruce Hubbard of Hubbard Contracting of Westhampton, whose employees had to manually carry the whale more than 500 feet to a flatbed truck on Dune Road, because it is piping plover season and vehicle beach access is limited.
While she was not there for the mammal’s removal, Ms. Woolfson said she saw pictures of the recovery operation. After trying nets that ended up breaking, volunteers utilized several pieces of wood and muscle to carry the creature to the pickup truck.
“They rolled it onto the wood and then lifted it and carried it the way that the pharaohs used to be carried,” Ms. Woolfson said.
Though she immediately realized that the creature was a whale, Ms. Woolfson said she was not sure of the species. “I never saw a snout like that,” she said. “It almost had the head of a beluga whale but had a pointy nose—so it didn’t make sense.”
Pygmy sperm whales are slightly larger than dolphins; most adults weigh between 800 and 900 pounds and can grow to about 11 feet in length. Their undersides are typically a creamy pinkish color, while their backs and sides are a bluish-gray. Pygmy sperm whales have between 20 and 32 teeth, all set in the lower jaw, and they primarily feed on cephalopods, including squid. They are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and it is believed that their main predators are great white sharks and killer whales.
Ms. Durham pointed out that very little is known about pygmy sperm whales, which are a protected species even though they are not considered by the federal government to be endangered or threatened. They are an offshore species that are typically found off the coast of Florida and as far north as the Carolinas, Ms. Durham noted. “They don’t tend to venture to the north,” she said. “The ones we generally see are in bad body condition.”
The Riverhead Foundation had a busy week last week. Volunteers were called to recover a male white-sided dolphin last Thursday, May 3, a day after the pygmy sperm whale washed ashore, at Sagg Beach in Sagaponack, according to Ms. Durham. She estimated that the dolphin had died less than 24 hours earlier and concluded, following a necropsy, that it had suffered from a severe respiratory infection. “It was a thin animal and had some worn teeth. It was an older male,” she said. “This was a pretty extensive infection.”
Ms. Woolfson said she never knows what she and her son will stumble across when they go for their afternoon walks. The week prior, she said, they came across a seal pup that was alive and appeared to be in distress. Ms. Woolfson said they contacted marine experts who told them to leave the seal alone. She said the mammal slept overnight on the beach before making its way back into the ocean the next day.
“We’ve been here since 1997, full-time since 2000, and every other year we’ve seen something substantial,” Ms. Woolfson said. “It’s a fascinating and extremely exciting place to live.”