Mammoth whale washes up on St. Croix beach
Published: April 16, 2011
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ST. CROIX - The dorsal fin pointed to one conclusion, while the size of the pregnant sperm whale that washed up recently on an East End beach pointed to another.
As of Friday, V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources Chief of Environmental Education William Coles still was not sure whether the dead 7-foot whale that washed up Wednesday on the westernmost end of Teague Bay Beach was a dwarf or a pygmy sperm whale - but it was definitely one of the two.
"It's got a very small mouth and a very pronounced nose, so it's got to be one of these two - there's no other whale that looks like this," Coles said.
The dwarf and pygmy sperm whales are very similar - in fact, they originally were considered the same species, with a distinction only officially recognized among scientists in 1966, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The whale's size led Coles to believe it was a dwarf sperm whale, he said. After cutting it open to see what it had eaten, officials found a 17-centimeter-long calf in the whale's belly.
"That would imply that it's an adult and it's a dwarf," Coles said.
But upon comparing the photos with official dimensions, the dorsal fin's shape and positioning appear to be more similar to the pygmy sperm whale, which is generally larger than its dwarf relative, Coles said.
"We're still waiting to find out what type of sperm whale it is," he said.
Coles said that all signs point to the mammal drowning after becoming entangled in a rope, most likely somewhere northeast of St. Croix. A series of indentations winding around its tail led Coles to that conclusion.
"There were no puncture wounds or gunshot wounds," he said.
Someone probably cut the dead whale loose and it floated for several days before washing up sometime Wednesday morning at Teague Bay - just down the beach from Duggan's Reef Restaurant, close to where a sailboat ran aground more than a month ago, Coles said.
On Wednesday, the whale was pale white. Most of its dark gray skin rubbed off before it was fully beached, easily tearing away after days of decomposing, Coles said. By Thursday, the whale's body had decayed significantly.
DPNR officials cut off the whale's head to preserve the skull and documented as much as they could, he said. Part of what has made identification difficult is the limited knowledge of the two species. Unlike other whales, the diminutive size saved these whales from any large-scale fishing operations, but that also meant that limited information was collected, Coles said.
"They're very uncommon," Coles said.
Both species are deep-diving, found primarily in the open ocean, and are suction-feeders, eating mostly squid, NOAA said.
After preserving the head, DPNR officials trailed the remains of the carcass two miles to the north of St. Croix, hoping the tide would carry it away from the island, Coles said.
"We let it drift and, hopefully, it will be eaten by sea creatures or maybe a shark," he said.
- Contact Daniel Shea at 774-8772 ext. 457 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.