Ship Strike, Illness To Blame For Whale’s Death

OCEAN CITY – It appears a boat strike likely caused the death of the 27-foot, 10-ton juvenile humpback whale that washed up on the beach last Saturday afternoon, although there is evidence illness contributed to its demise.

The sub-adult female humpback washed up on the beach in Ocean City around 5th Street last Saturday afternoon, causing quite a stir among Boardwalk and beach-goers along with pre-St. Patrick’s Day revelers in the area. The heavy surf and high tides lingering from a mid-week coastal low off the coast at one point carried the deceased whale off the beach at 5th Street and deposited it back on the strand about two blocks south at 3rd Street before Ocean City Police Department’s Animal Control officers and the town’s Public Works Department secured it and prevented it from moving again.

“I can’t say enough about the town’s Public Works Department, the police and the animal control officers,” said Jamie Schofield, coordinator of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sea turtle and marine mammal-stranding program. “Their response was phenomenal and they were on the site very quickly and brought it to a site where we could examine the animal.”

Schofield said the DNR did a cursory examination of the deceased whale on the beach before it was moved to an area more conducive for thorough examination. A chain was looped around the whale’s tail and it was dragged by truck down the beach and under the pier to an area near the Inlet parking lot, where it was loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported to the town’s public works facility on 65th Street. According to some witness reports, the scene of the whale being trucked through the streets of Ocean City on the flatbed caused a stir equal to the scene on the beach.

Schofield said the whale had already died when it washed up on the beach, making it a DNR issue. The National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) is responsible for responding to live marine creature strandings such as sea turtles and seals.

Schofield said the preliminary examination pointed to a ship strike as the primary cause of death although an internal examination and tissue samples suggest the creature might have been ill before it was struck, which contributed to its demise.

“We did find evidence of a ship strike, which likely caused its death,” she said. “However, it appears the whale might have been sick already. If it had been a healthy whale, it might have been able to avoid the ship strike. The investigation is ongoing and we haven’t closed the case yet.”

The whale was a juvenile humpback about 27 feet long and weighed around 20,000 pounds, or 10 tons. The town was able to weigh the mammal on a truck scale by subtracting the estimated weight of the vehicle.

While it is not a frequent occurrence, there have been other recent whale strandings in the resort area. About a year ago, a badly decomposed whale carcass about the same size as the one that washed ashore last Saturday was discovered on the beach at Assateague. About two years ago, a similar incident occurred on the beach in South Bethany.

In one now famous incident dating back to the 1930s, a large whale washed ashore on the beach in the downtown Ocean City area, and crews lacked trucks or equipment with enough horsepower to move it. In their infinite wisdom, crews loaded the deceased mammal with dynamite and blew it, showering the downtown area with bits of whale flesh and blubber that reportedly took months to clean up.

Schofield said the examination of the whale that washed up last Saturday was mostly completed by Sunday evening and public works crews disposed of the carcass properly.