Jul 30, 2014
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Riverhead Foundation: Beached Whale Died Of Natural Causes

A 60-foot, malnourished whale that washed up in Breezy Point was severely malnourished.

Riverhead Foundation: Beached Whale Died Of Natural Causes

The massive 60-foot beached whale that washed up at Breezy Point the day after Christmas and netted widespread attention likely died of natural causes, according to the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, which rushed to the scene when the whale was found.

"The working diagnosis from the forensic examination is congestive renal failure secondary to parasitic disease called crassicaudiosis," Kimberly Durham, rescue program director and necropsy team leader of the Riverhead Foundation said Wednesday.

"The other finding is that we were able to rule out any human interacton," she said. "There were no signs of blunt force trauma, ship strike, or entanglement wounds."

Crassicauda infection is caused by large marine nematode which causes pathological lesions within the renal tissues and vasculature, she said.

The 60-foot male adult male washed up at Breezy Point on Dec. 26, triggering an outpouring of interest and concern for its health.

According to Rob DiGiovanni, executive director and senior biologist of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, the organization received a call about a live whale found on the beach at Breezy Point on Dec. 26 at 10:30 a.m.

A team was immediately dispatched to the scene to assess the 60-foot fin whale, which was found to be "extremely emaciated," DiGiovanni said. "It wasn't very active," he said. "It looked like an animal that had been sick for some time, and was at a point where it had no more energy to fight."

The whale was monitored through the next high tide cycle, when it moved 300 years to the west on the beach.

The next morning, the whale died, DiGiovanni said.

Plans for a necropsy were made, in order to determine what might have contributed to its death. The Riverhead Foundation worked with the National Parks Service and the department of sanitation to help secure the whale on the beach and collect tissue samples, DiGiovanni said.

While a pilot study in 2004 indicated that it is not uncommon to see fin whales around Long Island or New York during the winter months -- usually farther off the shore -- DiGiovanni said it was uncommon for a whale to appear in such a deteriorated condition.

"We usually get animals that wash up in an advanced state of decomposition that have died offshore and are pushed up by wave action. It's rare that this whale was alive," he said. "Unfortunately, the outcome ended up being the same. The whale was so compromised you could see its ribs."

The whale, which normally would weigh about 60 tons, was only 20 to 30 tons when found, DiGiovanni said.

The necropsy, DiGiovanni said, helped to provide researchers with a better indication of what problems whales face biologically.

"This helps us get a better look at the picture," he said. "It's another piece of the puzzle."

The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, he said, is working to secure future funding to look at the health and illnesses of whales in the wild.

Durham said because no individuals had permits or put out requests for skeletal artifacts, the animal was buried in a large ditch on the same spot on Breezy Point where the necropsy was done. "He was a big animal," she said.

Durham thanked all involved for their cooperation, including representatives from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division and National Parks Service representatives, as well as police.

"Although people had hoped for a better outcome -- they were expecting us to come down and give it fluids and antibiotics and send the whale on its way -- unfortunately, one look at the animal told us the story had been going on for awhile, and this was a chronic illness," Durham said.

The response and examination of the 60 foot male adult whale was made possible by the Rockaway Sanitation Department and the SCE, an environmental contracting company, Durham said.

Because of the whale's size, that help was invaluable, Durham said. "They saved the day," she said. Before the offer to help came, the only equipment those on the scene had was a rubber-tired payloader. "Against the weight of the whale, that wasn't going to work. Without them, I don't think we would have been successful," she said.

Durham said the whale elicited a range of emotions in onlookers. "Everyone was so sad, looking at the animal."

The whale, Durham said, did not get lost -- and its illness was the reason it washed up in such a compromised condition. "People were angry that we had decided to let nature take its course," she said. "We spent a lot of time trying to explain what was going on, and what it takes to have an animal get that emaciated. If they have more questions, I encourage them to contact us so they can understand what prompted the decision," she said.

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