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Close up of a young humback whale necropsied by the New England Aquarium

Heavy machinery is used to move a young humback whale necropsied by the New England Aquarium

Photos: Connie Merigo /
New England Aquarium

Boston, MA - May 17, 2007
The young humpback whale that was found dead in Rockport, Massachusetts on Monday evening died from major blunt trauma to his chest, neck and head. Initial necropsy results of the thirty-foot baleen whale showed that it had sustained widespread bruising, swelling, and hemorrhaging of soft tissues throughout that area. The dissection also revealed extensive bleeding and swelling in the tissues around the spinal cord and in the brain. This approximately two-year old male had been severely concussed from a massive force.

The necropsy team was led by Dr. Michael Moore of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In an e-mail, he concluded, “…at this time it is reasonable to conclude that the animal succumbed within hours after major blunt trauma to chest, neck and head.”

The source of the blunt trauma to such a large animal was most likely a vessel strike. This type of injury could be inflicted by a large recreational boat or yacht, a commercial fishing boat or a ship. Smaller toothed whales on rare occasions have sustained similar severe head trauma from aggressive behavior from other toothed whales. However, this kind of injury is unknown to scientists in large whale species such as humpbacks.

The rapid demise of the animal had also alarmed marine scientists. The whale had been observed feeding near the Rockport beach on Sunday evening. His behavior was vigorous and appeared healthy. Necropsy results also showed that the whale prior to the collision had been in good body condition with a normal blubber coat. The whale was reported dead early Monday evening. Anyone who had observed the whale alive during the day on Monday is asked to contact NOAA offices in Gloucester.

The necropsy was performed by a large team of marine biologists and veterinarians at Cape Hedge Beach in Rockport on Tuesday afternoon. The team included staff from the New England Aquarium in Boston, the Whale Center of New England in Gloucester, and the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation of Long Island.

This particular necropsy was a high priority for marine mammal researchers given the freshness of the carcass and the high quality of dozens of tissue samples that were extracted for later lab testing. Humpback whales, an endangered species, have had a higher than normal mortality rate over the past year along the East Coast. However, the vast majority of those dead animals were located far offshore or were badly decomposed. New England Aquarium marine animal rescue staff will continue with the processing of these tissue samples to see if any underlying disease or condition might have debilitated the whale and made it more vulnerable to the vessel strike.

Humpback whales are well known to whale watchers as they are the acrobats of the whale world as mature adults can propel their 40 ton bodies up to thirty feet out of the water. These images are also very popular with advertisers. Humpback whales congregate just 25 miles east of Boston each summer in America’s only whale feeding sanctuary at Stellwagen Bank. There, dozens of whales, including humpbacks, feed on schooling fish, krill and plankton. Whale watches from Boston, Gloucester and Provincetown all frequent those summer whale feeding waters. Humpbacks have been in abundance there this spring.

The New England Aquarium on Boston’s waterfront is among the most prominent aquariums in the nation. Its marine animal rescue team has been rescuing, rehabilitating and doing research on whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and seaturtles since 1968.