Endangered right whale cause of death confirmed: vessel strike

The cause of death of a North Atlantic right whale calf that had been floating in the water off Chatham’s shore near Morris Island had been a mystery. Based on the findings of a necropsy in which I participated, we are confident the cause of death was indeed a vessel strike.

READ: BREAKING: Right whale calf found dead in Cape Cod waters, necropsy in progress     

Our team headed out right away to examine the whale at Harding’s Beach where it had been brought ashore by the Chatham Harbormaster. It was a young male calf that would have still been nursing with several large lacerations on its 29-foot body. The wounds were compatible with those caused by the propeller of a ship, but we would need to do a necropsy, an animal autopsy, to determine the cause of death.

Another question that I was eager to answer: Was it alive before it was hit?

Right whales are critically endangered and still facing many threats, including entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with ships. Researchers along the eastern US and Canadian sea board, tirelessly study these animals throughout their habitat, are hopeful that they can provide information that may aid in saving this species from extinction.

In fact, fellow researchers had been tracking this whale and his mother “Punctuation” since he was born this winter in the southeastern United States and recently saw both the mother and calf pair swimming in Cape Cod Bay, just a week before the animal was found dead.

Tragically this is her second of eight calves to die before reaching a year old.

The next day we conducted a full necropsy on the beach examining the wounds, bones and internal organs, and sampling tissues for further analysis. This would not have been possible without the assistance of many organizations including: the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, New England Aquarium, Town of Chatham, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Center for Coastal Studies, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Based on the findings, our initial hypothesis was that the whale was alive before making contact with a vessel and the injuries sustained led to this animal’s death.

However, we needed the histology results from the tissues that we collected to definitively determine the cause of death and further analyses to potentially determine the estimated size and type of vessel.

We received the histology results and they did in fact confirm that this endangered right whale calf died due to injuries sustained from being hit by a vessel.

The science of studying and examining both live and dead whales is essential for protecting their future. We have found that simple solutions can be effective. For example, when ships slow down in right whale critical habitats, this reduces whale and ship interactions and the possibility that whales will sustain life threatening injuries.

Tools like IFAW’s Whale Alert help protect whales as well. This app provides critical data to ship captains alerting them when whales have been spotted in the area and also provides data on speed limits and restricted areas to help them avoid coming into contact with whales.

Unfortunately this whale died as a result of human activities, but lessons learned from this case will hopefully be used to prevent this from happening again.


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