As the body of the sperm whale calf was carried over the rocks and down the beach at Ditch Plain in Montauk Saturday evening — its 18-foot length suspended from a payloader — dozens of people lined the dunes to watch the procession backlit by a brilliant sunset.
That morning surfers paddled out into the waves only a hundred yards from where the whale lay high and dry among the boulders, its blowhole opening for a breath now and again. The tide was low. As it rose, a steady flow of people made the trek to see the stricken, and, as it turned out, dying animal.
Why can’t we try to push it back into the ocean? Why are the police just standing there? If it’s going to die, why can’t they put it out of its misery? The questions were a constant refrain as the hours passed. Higher water seemed to give the whale, and its human supporters, some hope, but the significant amount of blood in the water only fueled the onlookers’ concern.
Frustration, and in some cases, anger grew with the knowledge that biologists from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation’s stranding network were making painfully slow progress through summer traffic from their headquarters in Riverhead. During the wait, police had to stop two would-be Good Samaritans from trying to help the animal off the rocks.
When Kim Durham, a biologist, and her team finally arrived it took them just minutes to assess the whale’s condition and to offer their grim prognosis. The sperm whale calf would not survive.
The species was once the source of the cleanest burning lamp oil, which lighted the Montauk Lighthouse for years. It is a toothed whale, the deepest-diving whale, has the largest brain of any animal in the world, and was the whale Herman Melville chose to immortalize in “Moby Dick.” After being heavily fished in the 19th century, its numbers are now increasing. Sperm whales are now protected throughout the world.
They are found off New York, but usually well out to sea. The whale at Ditch Plain was a dependent calf, according to Ms. Durham, meaning it had not finished nursing, and it obviously had a serious but unknown injury.
Even if the whale were healthy and could be towed offshore, it would starve without its mother, the biologist said at about 1 p.m. on Saturday. The calf died naturally just two hours later. Plans were made to remove it from the beach at town’s expense, take it to the East Hampton Town landfill, and perform a necropsy to determine why it became stranded. The Keith Grimes company did the heavy lifting.
Reached on Monday after she had completed the necropsy, Ms. Durham added some new information about the whale calf. She spoke about her shared frustration, about euthanasia, about the bureaucracy surrounding stranded marine mammals, and how an individual from the South Fork, ideally a veteranarian willing to learn and follow federal guidelines, might prevent needless suffering in the future.
“She was 18 feet long and weighed 5,000 pounds. The teeth had not erupted,” she said, referring to the fact that the whale was still nursing, although squid beaks found in her stomach meant that she was “in transition” to solid food.
“Sperm whales nurse for up to two years, so even though she was transitioning, she would have been in the company of the mother. Female calfs tend to stay within a herd, a matriarchal society with mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. Males tend to leave. The females tend to stay together far offshore. It’s very rare to see them close to shore in New York. If one strands on the South Shore of Long Island, something’s wrong,” Ms. Durham said.
“Along the left side of the tail stock was a considerable wound, a two or three-foot, circular wound,” in other words, the bite of a shark or killer whale. “It was healing, but had the potential to slow the animal down.” Ms. Durham also reported the whale had some plastic in her stomach, although probably not enough to affect her health.
“It’s a sad case, and I’m really trying to explain the actions we took,” she said, going on to explain that those people, such as the foundation staff, who are involved in responding to stranded marine mammals, were up against strict, federally imposed protocols.
She said, for instance, that “before we put down an animal, we are required to have a plan to secure the carcass. We have to have a disposal plan in place even before it dies. It is irresponsible to euthanize and then let the tide take the animal out to sea.”
The reason, she said, was the possibility of attracting sharks, but also because some chemicals used to euthanize big animals kill the scavengers that feed on a carcass. She gave the example of bald eagles dying in Alaska after eating the remains of animals euthanized with pentobarbital.
Federal guidelines also prevent unauthorized people from pushing stranded whales and dolphins back to sea. She said the health of a common dolphin found stranded on a Montauk beach this summer was very likely compromised when people with good intentions continued to push it back to sea. “We have tanks, not for whales, but for dolphins, seals, and turtles.”
Ms. Durham said the foundation was sensitive to the criticism that followed what appeared to be the delayed and botched effort to euthanize a humpback whale that was stranded east of Main Beach in East Hampton last year. “I expect letters. Our Facebook page is getting hit. I’m willing to try to explain, but for some people it doesn’t matter.”
The biologist agreed that summer traffic was a time-consuming obstacle. She said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, was open to the idea of involving an individual living on the South Fork, where strandings occur relatively often. Ideally the person would be a veteranarian willing to learn federal protocols and get first-reponder training in order to prevent needless suffering of a stranded marine mammal if there was not hope of survival.
She said she understood how people were often “blindsided by their emotions. . . . This would not be a three-hour lecture. They would have to work with us. They would have to be trained, otherwise it’s a liability.”