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By Peter Vankevich
A Gervais’ beaked whale in stressed condition washed to shore near the Ramp 67 entrance on Ocracoke Tuesday afternoon.
Lisa Loos, from Winston-Salem, was fishing on the beach when she noticed it.
“We thought we saw dolphins playing off the sand bar and I started walking towards them,” she said. “Then I thought it was a shark because a fin was sticking up. Then we realized it was a whale. As it got close to shore, it started to thrash since the water was not deep enough.
“So, we called the Park Service and they showed up in about 20 minutes.” The whale eventually beached and perished.
The next day, a necropsy was performed to determine the cause of death and learn more about the species. The whale measured 14.5 feet and weighed 2,065 pounds.
Paul Doshkov, a biotechnician and lead Marine Mammal Response Coordinator with the National Park Service stationed in Bodie Island, said this species of whale can be found in the deep waters off the Carolina coasts.
“We usually get one or two of this species that land on the Outer Banks per year,” he said.
The first recorded specimen of a Gervais’ beaked whale (Mesoplodon europaeus) was found floating in the English Channel sometime around 1840. It is named after the French scientist Paul Gervais, who in 1855 described it as a new species.
Beaked whales are members of the family Ziphiidae, which consists of 22 species and are named for their elongated beaks. Because of their deep-sea habitat, little is known about them, though it is believed they feed primarily on squid. Doshkov noted that the necropsy did not reveal any food in the stomach to analyze.
Most of the known information about this whale comes from necropsy analysis of strandings since they are rarely seen at sea.
Wayne Justice from the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is a team member of the N.C. Marine Mammal Stranding Network. He took the Cedar Island ferry to help with the Park Service with the necropsy.
“We are here to assist in any way we can, “he said. “We will look for signs of injuries or illness it may have been suffering from and try to gain some insight and knowledge to learn about the history of this animal.”
He noted it is uncommon to see a highly intelligent marine mammal that would end up on the beach for no reason.
“You just don’t see beached whales that are healthy,” he said. “There is usually a major illness or sickness that it is already in place. The reality is that they are already too weak, and the currents push them to the beach.
‘What we have learned is that even if we got it back into the water, it will usually end up again on the beach and there are a lot of scavengers that will predate on an animal in a weakened condition.
“While it is sad to see such a highly intelligent animal in a condition like this, it is an opportunity to learn more about them.”
Doshkov said the cranial section of the vertebral column of this whale will go UNC-Wilmington and the ear bones will go to an institution in France for an acoustic trauma study.
While North Carolina has a lot of excellent resources for rehabilitation of injured or sick turtles, including the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, there are no rehab sites for whales in North Carolina, Justice said.
Jocelyn Wright, the Lead Biological Sciences Technician on Ocracoke, was on the scene.
People should stay clear of any whales in distress and to call the Park Service if one is observed, she said.
Whales are covered under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and should not be approached. Additionally, due to their massive size, bystanders could be injured if one moves in an unexpected manner.
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore Sea Turtle and Marine Mammal Stranding hotline to report endangered or dead whales is 252-216-6892.
Other whales that have been stranded on the beaches of North Carolina in recent years have been dwarf and pygmy sperm whales and humpbacks.