Twelfth dead whale washes ashore in Cutler – 10/15/2005

  • November 22, 2013 at 3:08 am #1056

    Saturday, September 24, 2005 – Bangor Daily News << Back

    CUTLER – Two area college professors who teach about marine mammals
    were ecstatic Friday morning on one of the beaches of Little Machias

    They were surrounded by 20 of their students, all viewing a 24-foot-
    long dead minke whale.

    Sean Todd of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor has studied
    whales, dead and alive, for more than 18 years – and is one of just
    five “necropsy leaders” in New England.

    Gayle Kraus of the University of Maine at Machias has focused on
    whales for the last six years of the 25 years she has taught marine
    biology at UMM.

    “It’s gorgeous,” Kraus said.

    “It’s lovely,” Todd added. Then he ventured: “It’s the most perfect
    specimen I have ever worked with.”

    The whale had been on the beach since Tuesday, brought ashore by the
    high tides from Sunday’s full moon. It had been sighted floating
    nearby by lobstermen, and its beaching was reported by a clammer.

    Todd directed a necropsy – a dissection – as the 11 COA and nine UMM
    students took samples of tissue of the mammal, which had been dead
    for five days at the most.

    Their work may help federal officials determine why so many whales
    have died for unexplained reasons this summer in Atlantic waters.

    This was the 12th dead whale to come ashore in Maine, Kraus said. It
    is the 25th whale death reported between Maine and Virginia since
    July 1, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

    Sightings of whale carcasses from Atlantic waters in July and August
    usually range from five to 14. But the jump in numbers this year has
    prompted some to declare what officials in the field call an “unusual
    mortality event.”

    The students spent more than three hours cutting away the whale’s
    skin and blubber to get to its guts. Wearing thick rubber gloves and
    using sharp knives and hooks, they picked through the pieces until
    the intestines and stomach were exposed and sampled.

    Then the flies arrived. The smell went from bad to worse.

    “You get used to this,” Kraus said. “As a child, I couldn’t stand
    dissections. Now I’m the first one in.”

    The samples will go to a lab to be checked for parasites, pathogens
    and biotoxins such as red tide. The National Marine Fisheries Service
    is seeking “a second level of investigatory evidence” because of the
    unusual mortality event, Kraus said.

    “We won’t know for a couple of months why there are so many dead
    whales this summer,” Todd said.

    The appearance of rope burns on the whale’s back suggests that this
    whale had become entangled in fishermen’s ropes and nets.

    Kraus and some colleagues, working at UMM just 15 miles from the
    beached whale site, came to Little Machias Bay as soon as they heard
    about the carcass on Tuesday. They took measurements until dark, then
    spent much of Wednesday and Thursday telling others.

    Once Todd learned about the specimen, he e-mailed COA’s entire marine-
    minded campus community. “There’s a dead whale in Cutler and
    professors need to excuse anyone who wants to go with me on Friday
    from their classes,” he wrote.

    As for the rest of the whale, Kraus and UMM are taking proud
    ownership. The skeleton will be cleaned and examined, although first
    they will remove the carcass from the beach.

    That takes place today. Kraus will return with four whale-happy
    colleagues from the campus – Bill Weaver, Sherry Sprangers, Jerry
    Zegers and Ellen Hostert – and other curious students.

    They will pull what remains of the body away from the bones, then
    bring the skeleton back in Weaver’s pickup truck.

    “Someone has volunteered – and I’m not telling who – to have the
    skeleton in their backyard for a short time [for cleansing],” Kraus
    said. “It will have a tarp over it and be away from other houses and

    It is uncommon to retrieve a dead whale with its skeleton intact,
    Kraus said.

    “It’s a wonderful comparative tool for the whole area, not just UMM,”
    Kraus said.

    The morning served as the first complete whale necropsy for Kraus.
    She and her students have done similar autopsies for dolphins and
    seals, but never for a whale so fresh.

    Just two weeks ago, Kraus and others had responded to news of another
    minke whale corpse located at Big Nash Island near Addison. That one,
    however, was severely decomposed and not at all a pleasure to

    Last week Kraus autopsied a sea turtle that had washed up on the
    beach at Roque Bluffs.

    Now the new whale makes for three significant specimens that her
    students have studied since the semester’s start.

    “Won’t that be so cool?” Kraus said of the impending arrival of the
    full skeleton to UMM. “I can’t wait.”

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