August 17, 2021
Yesterday, the Center for Coastal Studies responded to a report of a humpback whale carcass floating south of Stellwagen Bank. Stranding network partners take the lead when carcasses strand on land, but CCS scientists are federally-authorized to respond to such reports at sea whenever possible in order to identify the individual and to collect information to help to determine why it died. Time is typically of the essence because decomposition and predation both work quickly to remove key pieces of evidence. Often the information available for identification is quite poor and in some cases we have to resort to genetic matching.
In this case, however, CCS researchers were able to obtain enough underwater imagery to identify the individual as an unnamed catalogued whale, the 2020 calf of Venom. This is an individual who was well-known to CCS scientists, as well as whale watchers off the coast of Massachusetts. The cause of his death is not known at this time.
While it is sad to learn that an individual has died, documenting these events is essential for long-term population studies, such as the Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog (curated by CCS) and the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog (curated by Allied Whale). These efforts are also critical to efforts to understand the on-going humpback whale Unusual Mortality Event (2016–2021 Humpback Whale Unusual Mortality Event Along the Atlantic Coast | NOAA Fisheries). CCS shares the identity and aspects of the history of these individuals with NOAA’s investigative team to better understand the factors that might have led to their deaths.
Members of the public can help by reporting dead marine mammals and sea turtles using the NOAA hotline: (866) 755-NOAA (866-755-6622). For entangled animals (live or dead) off southern New England, please call the CCS entanglement hotline: 1-800-900-3622.
Remember to keep your distance from whale carcasses, whether at sea or on land. Conditions can be more dangerous than they appear, especially if predators are in the area, and touching marine mammals is prohibited by law, even after death.