The sperm whale calf that died on a rocky Montauk beach on July 30 did more than tell darkly of the mysteries of the deep. It brought to mind the awful time in April 2010, when a young humpback whale languished in the East Hampton surf. This time, the Montauk calf died relatively quickly, unlike 2010 when the larger humpback hung on for the better part of three days before succumbing to a shot from a high-powered rifle and a dose of phenobarbital.
Now, as then, some people are critical of the time both cetaceans spent marooned before they died, saying a more humane, speedier method of dispatching the huge animals must be found.
One expert in marine mammals said that quick, if bloody, methods for euthanizing whales could be used by those who know how, and could have worked in the Montauk whale’s case. He criticized the length of time it took before both whales died. Other experts have defended the official responses, pointing out that whale strandings are very rare and that no one has much experience with knowing what to do when one must be put down.
Of course, this would not have been the case a century ago, when East Hampton’s whalemen still watched the surf for telltale spouts. The old killing implements hang in museums hereabouts, and, if someone still knew how they were used, even the largest whale could be dispatched in a hurry. In those days, the boatheader would creep to the front of a light, 28-foot, offshore whaleboat to kill the whale with a 15-foot-long, razor-sharp lance. In time, the men turned to so-called bomb guns, but they apparently never worked very well and the more sure results of an experienced hand and a well-honed blade were preferred.
Those who work with whales say that a modern analog to the time-honored lance can be found — a means of more quickly dispatching these creatures when there is no hope of recovery. The federal government, whose responsibilities include marine mammals, and the Riverhead Foundation, which handles strandings on Long Island, should work with local, willing veterinarians to take care of these majestic animals more swiftly when their time has come.