With sharp knives and heavy equipment, washed-up whale hauled away

  • Workers from the state Department of Transportation lift part of the humpback’s fluke into a dumpster after the necropsy performed Wednesday. The whale remains will be taken to a compost site. KATIE GALIOTO / Monitor staff

  • Marine biologists perform a necropsy on a humpback whale Wednesday at Rye Harbor State Park. The 45-foot mammal washed ashore Monday morning. KATIE GALIOTO / Monitor staff

  • Crowds gather to watch the necropsy of an 18-year-old humpback whale from afar. Many climbed down a rocky slope to get a better view from the beach. KATIE GALIOTO / Monitor staff

  • Crowds gather to watch the necropsy of an 18-year-old humpback whale at Rye State Park on Wednesday. Town police roped off the area around the work site. KATIE GALIOTO / Monitor staff

  • Marine biologists perform a necropsy on an 18-year-old humpback whale in Rye State Park on Wednesday. The whale washed ashore Monday morning. KATIE GALIOTO / Monitor staff

  • A marine biologist performs a necropsy on an 18-year-old humpback whale at Rye State Park on Wednesday. The whale washed ashore Monday morning. KATIE GALIOTO / Monitor staff

  • Marine biologists perform a necropsy on an 18-year-old humpback whale at Rye State Park on Wednesday. The whale’s skeleton will be preserved and displayed at a museum in the KATIE GALIOTO / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/30/2016 1:13:55 AM

Police lights flashed up and down Route 1A by Rye Harbor State Park all day long. Yellow rope held back crowds.

The beach had been transformed Wednesday into a marine crime scene investigation of sorts.

Marine biologists conducted a necropsy on the 45-foot humpback whale that washed ashore Monday morning to determine its cause of death. Responders from local, state and federal organizations collaborated to dissect the animal and remove its massive remains from the beach.

Wendy Lull, president of the Seacoast Science Center, said so far, nothing seems fishy about the animal’s death – except the smell.

“That’s sort of where the detective work comes in,” she said. “We’re all trying not to speculate because there’s so many variables. It could be one week or three until the lab results come in.”

Snow Plow, an 18-year-old female humpback, was first spotted floating out at sea by fishermen and whale watchers Sunday morning. Thousands of visitors poured in from across the state over the next two days to catch an up-close glimpse of the 35-ton mammal that had washed up on shore.

On Wednesday, spectators had a different viewing experience. Even from far away, they could see pounds of whale blubber being lifted off the beach in front-end bucket loaders and tossed into large construction dumpsters.

After reading about the whale online, Jill Nelson and her sons Jack and Henry came from Dover to check out the site.

“It was the smell,” she said. “That’s how we knew we’d reached the right spot.”

Bill Jones said he made the trip down from Exeter because his 12-year-old daughter was curious about the procedure.

“The biggest thing I thought of is I’m really glad I’m not renting that house this week,” he added, pointing to a blue beach house near the necropsy site.

Crews were racing both the tide and the sunset to finish the examination and clear the site.

“I’m happy it’s a foggy day,” Lull said. “Because if this were a hot sunny day, that thing would be baking and cooking. And people are also less inclined to come see the ocean.”

Lull said they kept the crowds away for two reasons: to prevent the site from being contaminated and to comply with public health standards.

“The animal is leaking blood and juice. She’s really too young to just die of old age, so there could be something when we open it up,” she added.

Lull also warned people to stay out of the water for 24 hours, until a tidal cycle could purify the area.

“When you’ve got bad meat in the refrigerator, you throw it away,” she said. “You don’t handle it with your hands or step on it.”

Responders from the New England Aquarium – who headed the necropsy – began cutting into the carcass about 9 a.m. They took samples from the whale’s organs and blubber before stripping the flesh off the bones.

“They have very, very, very sharp knives,” Lull said. “One guy – he’s from the Science Center – his job is just to keep the knives sharp.”

The humpback bones were lifted into a trailer to be taken to a restoration site. Its skeleton will be displayed at a museum at some point in the future. The whale remains will be taken to Brick Ends Farm, an organic composting facility in South Hamilton, Mass.

Everything’s being put to good use, said Graham Courtney, a Fish and Game conservation officer.

“Nothing’s being wasted,” he said. “The important thing is if something’s going die, you gain something out of it – make the most of a bad situation.”

The effort was funded collectively – the state Department of Transportation supplied the heavy machinery, the town of Rye handled crowd control and a number of other groups supplied manpower or equipment.

“It’s really so invigorating to work with such a great team. Everybody has gone above and beyond,” Lull said near the end of what, for some, was a 13-hour workday.

Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium, said the examination could shed some light on the marine ecosystem as a whole. Seven whales – five of them humpbacks – have died and washed up on the New England shore over the past three months.

“The high number, it’s got our attention,” he said. “We’re going to do some tests and keep watching, to see if there’s a trend in the species or environment.”

As the sun began to lower, it began to rain on the beach. A rainbow appeared out over the water – a fitting tribute for Snow Plow, Lull said.

“The public interest has been extraordinary,” she added. “I think it says a lot about people’s awareness of the ocean and real concern about wildlife.”




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