Second large whale in two weeks to be found dead north of Boston with massive blunt trauma

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Top of head photo of a sei whale necropsied by the New England Aquarium

Photo: Whale Center of New England

Under jaw photo of a sei whale necropsied by the New England Aquarium

Photo: Whale Center of New England

Tail end photo of a sei whale necropsied by the New England Aquarium

Photo: Whale Center of New England

Boston, MA - June 5, 2007
Marine biologists conducting an autopsy on an endangered sei (say) whale that had washed up in Manchester-by-the Sea have determined that the forty-five foot animal was struck by a vessel while it was still alive. Scientists found eight broken vertebrae in the mid-section of the whale’s spine as well as a fractured front flipper.

Early Tuesday morning, there were still questions as to whether the visible massive blunt trauma had occurred before or after its death. Whale carcasses can float for weeks and are occasionally struck by vessels. As biologists from the New England Aquarium/Sovereign Bank Marine Animal Rescue Team, the Whale Center of New England and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts gathered in the picturesque rocky cove, they were looking for telltale signs that would give them clues as to the timing of the injuries. As they cut away the blubber layer from around the fractured areas, they found deep contusions and localized hemorrhaging in the soft tissues. This 20-25 ton whale had been alive when it was struck by a fairly large vessel.

Biologists cautioned that the whale might have been debilitated at the time of the strike as it had a heavy parasite load in its intestines. However, the whale also had a normal blubber layer and had recently eaten.

This was the second time in just over two weeks that a large whale had been found dead north of Boston and had died in part from injuries due to a vessel strike. Two weeks ago, a thirty-foot, humpback whale was found dead in Rockport, Massachusetts less than a day after it had been observed feeding near the shore. That juvenile male had died of massive blunt trauma to the head.

The whale found in Manchester-by-the Sea is a rarely seen sei (say) whale. Sei whales normally are found most commonly on the edge of the continental shelf and are rarely seen near shore or even at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 25 miles east of Boston.

Where the whale was struck is still a mystery. The whale was first reported to the Coast Guard early last week. Last Wednesday, New England Aquarium biologists took tissue samples of the floating whale just north of the mouth of Boston Harbor. At that time, the trauma was visible, and the whale was already in a middle stage state of decomposition and had probably been dead for at least a few days.