Saturday, 4 February 2012

Whale found to be dehydrated


FORT PIERCE — A listless 28-foot, 2-year-old humpback whale that washed into the Fort Pierce Inlet last week and died appears to have had a long, slow demise — possibly extending back to its time in the North Atlantic Ocean, according to researchers.

It was severely underweight, dehydrated and had intestinal infections.

"It was very very sick," said Hubbs-Seaworld Institute researcher Megan Stolen, who performed the autopsy. "There may have been a complete shutdown" of its body.

It had very little blubber, the body fat that humpback whales principally live off after migrating south in the winter from their feeding grounds in the North Atlantic waters.

The juvenile whale only had a couple of fish bones in its stomach and no food in its intestines.

And just before death it did something unheard of — it entered an inlet, said Stolen, whose institute is based in Melbourne Beach.

The 5,000-pound whale apparently was disoriented. Tides probably swept it into the inlet in the middle of night, she said. Startled recreational fishermen first spotted it: an unrecognizable dome of flesh in their boat's spotlight. The bulk of the body was under three feet of water in the shallows immediately west of the Fort Pierce Inlet State Park.

State and federal wildlife conservation officials were alerted and the animal died soon after an official arrived. Within hours on Jan. 25, a hurried autopsy was performed between tides. The probing was done outside on the inlet's north side on the shore of the state park.

About 30 people from private and public groups helped as Stolen probed the animal for five hours. Then the bulk of the carcass was towed far out to sea and untied.

Some cutoff parts were disposed of at the St. Lucie County Landfill.

Stolen took some small samples for testing that hasn't yet been performed.

During the summer the whales fatten up in the North Atlantic Ocean by consuming krill — small shrimplike creatures — and small fish. "They pass through the oceans" off the eastern seaboard, she said. During their 16,000-mile annual journey "they depend on the worldwide ecosystem."

Somewhere in the long journey the animal that ended up in the inlet sickened.

Researchers say finding the whale at the time of its demise was important because that lets them see a whale body before it started decomposing. Most dead whales are never found.

"The faster we heard about them the better," she said. Anyone finding a dying or dead whale should call the state at 1-888-404-3922.

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