November 22, 2013 at 3:08 am #1056MikeKeymaster
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
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,
“It’s a wonderful comparative tool for the whole area, not just UMM,”
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.”
The forum ‘Strange Animal Deaths’ is closed to new topics and replies.