FENWICK ISLAND – For the second time in a week, a deceased whale washed up on a local beach, this time in Fenwick Island with similar circumstances surrounding its ultimate demise.
On Saturday, March 13, a sub-adult female humpback whale washed ashore in Ocean City first at 5th Street and later at 3rd Street after the tide briefly carried it back to sea. Last Friday, a similar situation occurred when a huge sub-adult fin whale, measuring 61 feet in length and weighing an estimated 100,000 pounds, or roughly 50 tons, washed up on the beach just north of the Maryland-Delaware line.
By comparison, the deceased humpback that washed up on the beach in Ocean City two weeks ago was about 27 feet in length and weighed around 20,000, making it about one-fifth the size of the fin whale that washed up on the beach in Fenwick last Friday. The fin whale is the second largest animal in the world behind the great blue whale, according to Suzanne Thurmon, executive director of Delaware’s Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation (MERR) Institute, who responded to the scene in Fenwick and supervised the necropsy of the deceased whale.
“They’re magnificent creatures and, unfortunately, we typically only get to see one up close during situations like this when they wash up on a beach either deceased or extremely ill,” she said. “I’d like to get a chance to see one alive and healthy in its natural habitat.”
Thurmon said the fin whale was first spotted over four miles off the coast of the Indian River Inlet last Wednesday, but did not wash up on the beach until last Friday afternoon.
“It slowly made its way along the coast before getting beached last Friday,” she said. “It wasn’t truly on land until late in the afternoon on Friday. She kind of rolled in the surf until she was firmly on land. When we got our first look at her, she was in a severely decomposed state.”
According to Thurmon, the initial investigation pointed to a skull fracture likely caused by a collision with a large vessel as the primary cause of death, although other health issues may have contributed to the huge marine mammal’s demise. The initial cause of death determination was nearly identical to the cause of death identified with the whale that washed up on the beach in downtown Ocean City a week earlier, although Thurmon said the two incidents were merely coincidental.
“These large whales migrate during the spring and fall and their patterns bring them fairly close to the coast,” she said. “They’re certainly out there, but most of use don’t get a chance to see them until something unfortunate like this occurs.”
Thurmon said the whale had several fractures of the skull consistent with a boat strike. Earlier in the week, a ship off the coast reported spotting a whale off its bow, but when it pulled around, the whale sank immediately. Thurmon said it was impossible to determine if it was the same whale that washed up on the beach a couple of days later, but it is likely.
MERR officials took tissue samples from the deceased whale and examined it as much as possible on the beach where it washed up, but the creature was just too large and too heavy to allow for any attempt to move it. Thurmon said the MERR crew was hoping to at least take the whale’s skull back to its facility for further examination and to use for research, but its sheer weight prevented even that.
Thurmon said her crew worked gingerly around the huge whale on the beach for fear a sudden shift in the tide could move it and place them in danger.
“It was far too dangerous to try to do too much with,” she said. “At 100,000 pounds, if it rolled over on somebody, it could be quite dreadful or even fatal.”
Because of the creature’s sheer size, it was buried on the beach in Fenwick on Monday not far from where it washed ashore. Heavy equipment dug a massive grave of sorts for the whale.
“They attempted to move it further up the beach to an area less residential, but it wasn’t going to happen,” she said. “It wasn’t going anywhere because of its length and weight. Instead, they were able to move it away from the water line toward the dune where it was buried.”
Thurmon said there was no real concern about the massive whale being buried on the beach.
“It’s just part of the natural process,” she said. “It is buried at a depth where there is no real concern about any odors or other impacts. It’s buried deep enough that a child digging in the sand is not going to come across it.”