Whale washes up on Del. shore
Marine investigators analyzing mammal's tissues, organs to determine how it died
By CHIP GUY / The News Journal
Richard Sinofsky had a hard time finding a believer late Saturday night when he came across a 25,000-pound humpback whale on a deserted beach just outside of Bethany Beach.
He called his girlfriend, who wasn't buying his story. He called 911 and skeptical dispatchers sent a Delaware State Police trooper, who asked whether Sinofsky had been drinking. When he called a Baltimore TV station, someone abruptly told him to have a good night.
"I tell you, man, I called everybody I knew and they all thought I was crazy," he said.
He wasn't, and now state officials and a marine rescue organization are trying to figure out what killed the endangered mammal, the first of its kind to wash up on Delaware's shoreline in about eight years.
Scientists with the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute said a preliminary examination of the whale's wounds indicate it may have been hit by a ship's propeller.
But because much of the whale's skin had been pecked and peeled by predators - mainly gulls - the cause of death probably must await an exam known as a necropsy and laboratory analysis of tissues.
"We don't know right now if that [wound] is premortem or postmortem," said Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the marine institute, a nonprofit group that responds to marine mammal and sea turtle strandings in Delaware.
"Anything could have killed it. There could be a dozen different things that could have killed it," she said, including infection or even something in its diet.
Scientists and marine volunteers will be back on the beach today to resume poring over the carcass to take samples and look for clues. Monday's bitter cold forced a delay in the investigation.
The whale, thought to be a 2-year-old juvenile, was dragged on Sunday from a private beach south of Bethany Beach to an isolated section of Fenwick Island State Park, about a mile away. It took about two dozen volunteers three hours to wrap nylon straps around the whale, and then another hour for a mechanized loader to tow the animal to the park, where volunteers began their examination.
Finding cause of death
Investigators will have to dig into the body to reach deep tissue, muscles, bone and organs to get a better idea of what killed it. They'll even look at the contents of its stomach.
Thurman said investigators will take samples of the animal's skin, blubber and muscles today and send them off for testing, which her group will pay for. It could be two weeks before they get an answer on what killed the animal.
Thurman said there is no evidence that residual oil from a tanker spill in the Delaware River last month played any role, nor is there any indication other whales could follow.
"It's not a mass stranding event," she said.
Sinofsky, 29, said he was staying at a condominium complex for the weekend and was out on the private Sea Colony beach for a late-night stroll when he made his discovery.
Sinofsky said he heard a noise as he walked near the surf, almost like someone was slapping the ocean surface with a large board.
Then he saw a silhouette in the moonlight, a shape that appeared to be a tail.
"I thought at first it might be a big tuna," said Sinofsky. "Then I realized, 'Oh my God, it's a whale,' " he said.
Other whales before
While a whale washing ashore is not an everyday occurrence in Delaware, it has happened before.
A whale came ashore in 1996 and it also was a humpback, Thurman said. There also have been instances when the mammals have become entangled in fishing lines or nets, but not washed up on the beach.
An expert with the National Aquarium in Baltimore said the Delmarva Peninsula usually averages one or two humpbacks washing ashore each year.
"It's not uncommon," said David Schofield, manager of ocean health programs at the aquarium. "The problem is that they're endangered ... and when you're losing two a year, just in our little area, it says that we're impacting these animals' population and they'll soon be in trouble."
There are an estimated 7,600 humpback whales in the waters of the northwestern Atlantic, an area roughly from the Canadian maritime provinces south to the Caribbean, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates.
The whales pass through this area in the fall as they migrate south to breed and then north to feed in the spring.
Schofield said the mammals can be seen from Delaware's shoreline from time to time. Adults can reach about 55 feet in length and weigh more than 80,000 pounds.
Thurman said volunteers and marine experts will take several hours to collect samples and take measurements.
"It's very labor-intensive," she said. "It takes a lot of muscle, and a lot of sharp knives. They get dull fast."
Once the postmortem exam is completed, the whale will be buried somewhere along the beach. State officials will have to decide where that burial will be. The hole probably will need to be 10 feet deep and at least 30 feet long, Thurman said.
Burial is a common practice, rather than taking a dead whale out to sea. Thurman said the remains could wash back ashore and pose a health risk to people.
"It'll be buried deep enough that you won't have wildlife digging for it and pulling it back up," said James Wagner, manager of Fenwick Island State Park.
Contact Chip Guy at 856-7373 or [email protected]
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