Reseacher: Young Oak Island sperm whale may have been latest hurricane victim

UNCW researcher discusses findings of sperm whale necropsy at Oak Island NC

Young sperm whale may have been the latest victim of hurricanes that swept the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
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Young sperm whale may have been the latest victim of hurricanes that swept the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

A researcher suggested Friday that a juvenile sperm whale euthanized here early Thursday evening may have been the latest victim of a series of devastating hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico since late summer.

UNC-Wilmington Marine Mammalogy research associate William McClellan, who doubles as stranding coordinator for UNCW’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program, was on hand Friday as veterinarians and researchers conducted a five-hour necropsy on the 27-foot male sperm whale that was trapped by shallow waters near the Ocean Crest Pier at East 22nd Street and East Beach Drive at this southeastern North Carolina island Thursday morning.

“There was no big smoking gun inside the animal that we saw,” McClellan said after the necropsy.

The whale, estimated to be between 2 and 3 years old, was “extremely emaciated,” McClellan said. He suggested that it may have been separated from its mother during a hurricane and unable to feed itself since sperm whales are known to feed heavily on squid, diving more than a mile deep for an hour or so at a time to feed.

“He had nothing in the gut, he had not been feeding in a long time,” McClellan said. “He was not in his right mind for days to weeks (before his stranding).”

Sperm whales are cared for by their mothers up to as long as 10 years from birth. They can live longer than 70 years and the largest adult males range in size from 52 to 67 feet.

McClellan discounted reports that the whale, which was bleeding heavily while fighting for its life from 9 a.m. to about 5:15 p.m. Thursday when it was euthanized by veterinarians, had been injured by a predator or humans.

He said there were no signs of shark or orca (killer whale) bites, and “no signs of human interaction … no vessel strikes, no propeller wounds or entanglement signs.”

He said samples had been taken which would be examined by pathologists, with the results unknown until those tests are completed.

McClellan said researchers had found the whale had lymph nodes that were enlarged, suggesting a possible link to a virus “that cleaned out 1600 bottlenose dolphins a couple of years ago up and down the East Coast,” but added that was far from proven.

He said the whale was obviously disoriented and lost since it would normally feed at least 100 and more likely 200 to 250 miles from shore.

A member of the UNC-W team said the whale had been treated with sedatives and analgesics before being euthanized at about 5:15 p.m. Thursday.

She said Thursday that the whale had been tagged and followed for the last two to three months off the Oak Island area, which is a rare location for whales of its species, which is listed as “vulnerable” on international conservation threat lists.

Friday’s necropsy took place on the beach where the whale’s body had been dragged after its death Thursday. Workers used a front-end loader to shift the carcass and about 100 onlookers gathered to follow the proceedings throughout the late morning and early afternoon.

Gigi Donovan,

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