On the morning of May 26, onlookers, town workers, state park officials and rescue volunteers watched as a minke whale beached itself on the shore in Fenwick Island and then died, despite efforts to help the animal back into deeper waters.
The whale, a female, was estimated to be about 22 feet long and weigh around 10,000 pounds.
The first calls to the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR), a volunteer organization, came in around 8:30 a.m. last Thursday, when locals spotted the mammal in shallow waters on the beach near the James Street. Volunteers tried to move the animal, but it was too weak and too heavy, according to Suzanne Thurman, MERR’s executive director.
After it passed away, several construction vehicles were brought onto the beach to help pull it out of the surf, away from the water, so a necropsy – or animal autopsy – could be performed to determine a cause of death.
Thurman said whales beach themselves when they are ill or injured but that this action can often prove fatal.
“As soon as they come ashore, their lungs start to compress,” she said.
The whale’s tail soon became buried in the sand, making it difficult for it to flip itself off its side to prevent water from entering its blowhole. Those trying to help the whale couldn’t do much, because getting near the tail is dangerous because it is the strongest part of the animal, Thurman noted.
The necropsy, which was performed on Thursday afternoon, revealed that the whale had a heavy parasite load and stomach abnormalities and clearly hadn’t been eating well, according to Thurman. She estimated the whale was a sub-adult, the approximate equivalent of a human teenager.
Early Friday morning, the whale was buried on the beach near where it first came ashore.
“We like to let it go back into the food web,” Thurman explained.
Fenwick Island resident Jim Donopan was one of the dozen or so people, armed with cameras and camera phones, who watched as the whale was pulled from the water. He said he first saw the rescue efforts earlier in the morning and went home to get his camera.
“It’s fascinating when it happens, although you feel sorry for the animal,” he said. He noted that he’s seen many marine animal rescue and recovery attempts through the years.