SANDWICH, Mass. — When a group aboard a whale watch vessel spotted a dead humpback whale floating in the Stellwagon Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Scituate, Mass., May 4, whale experts around New England sprang into action.
They identified the whale as a female known as Vector, first seen and cataloged in 1984. They made plans to do a necropsy on the carcass, which made landfall May 6 on a beach in the town of Sandwich.
The necropsy, performed May 8, did not produce clear evidence about the whale’s cause of death. But unlike the humpback named Spinnaker who washed up in Acadia National Park in 2015, experts said they saw no evidence that interaction with fishing gear had anything to do with the death. Pathology results can take several months.
Dan DenDanto, a senior scientist at Allied Whale, the marine mammal laboratory at College of the Atlantic, said he began seeing pictures on social media almost immediately after the whale was reported on May 4.
The conditions were ideal, he said, for him and his colleagues to collect the skeleton of this whale, bring it back to Maine, and preserve and articulate it for an eventual museum exhibit.
Thanks to the extensive photo catalogs maintained by Allied Whale and the Center for Coastal Studies, the whale was quickly identified as Vector.
Researchers and whale watchers have been tracking her for 35 years. For the last 15 of those years, Vector has been seen every year, showing up in many parts of the Gulf of Maine, from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia. Her exact age was not known, but she had five confirmed calves.
Most of the time when a whale dies, it sinks to the bottom and is never seen again. In this case, with the prevailing wind and tides, the experts could tell the carcass would soon wash up on a beach.
When that happens, it becomes a job for stranding response organizations, which work under agreements with the National Marine Fisheries Service under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Allied Whale is one of those stranding response groups. In Sandwich, Mass., where the whale made landfall May 6, the local stranding response organization is the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
IFAW scientist Misty Niemeyer led the necropsy after the whale carcass was towed from East Sandwich Beach to the nearby Sandy Neck Beach.
DenDanto asked Niemeyer if he could retrieve the skeleton for the Allied Whale collection.
IFAW “had plenty of talented people on the beach to do the job” of the necropsy, DenDanto said. But saving the skeleton makes the task more difficult and complicated, so he made the trip along with several Allied Whale staff and College of the Atlantic students to package the skeleton for transport back to Maine.
The whale carcass was 47 feet, 7 inches long and weighed about 40 tons. After the necropsy, the remains other than the bones were taken to a nearby landfill.
More than 25 humpback strandings occurred between Maine and Florida each year between 2016 and 2018, compared with a previous annual average closer to 10. Vector was the first humpback stranding in Massachusetts this year, Jennifer Goebel of NOAA Fisheries said, but the 10th in 2019. The others were in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.
Vector’s bones will be buried in a compost pile at DenDanto’s home in Tremont. When they are dug up in about a year, they will have been thoroughly cleaned by bacteria and other organisms. Then he and his team will begin reassembling them.
Before the stranding, DenDanto said, he has been on the lookout for a mother humpback to exhibit with a humpback calf skeleton already in the Allied Whale collection.
That calf washed ashore in the summer of 2012 on Little Cranberry Island.
“Since that time I’ve been really interested in trying to find a mother” to display along with it, he said. “There’s not a mother-calf pair displayed in the world that I’m aware of.”