Scientists Investigate Deaths Of Rarely-Seen Beaked Whales Stranded On Maine Coast

Jul 27, 2020

The coast of Maine is home to a number of whales. Humpback, minkee and pilot whales are a familiar sight. Less common, however, is the beaked whale. Yet, just in the last few weeks, two beaked whales - a Blainville's beaked whale, which had never been seen here before, and a Sowerby's beaked whale - stranded and died on beaches in York and Phippsburg. Maine Public's Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Linda Doughty, director of Marine Mammals of Maine, about what's known about the unusual strandings at this point.

Mitchell: Welcome.

Doughty: Thank you.

Well, first of all, what is the beaked whale, and why is this event so extraordinary?

Beaked whales are kind of similar looking to dolphins - they have kind of that long rostrum look to them. And they're kind of in between like a whale and a dolphin size - they get up to, potentially, 20 to 40 feet, depending on the species. And these animals are a lot more deep-diving, smaller whales, so they're not seen as often. We've had four in our coverage area from Kittery to Rockland in the last 20 years.

So that first stranding last month in York was of a Blainville's beaked whale, which has never actually been seen in Maine before, and then the second one just recently was a Sowerby's in Phillpsburg. What has the investigation turned up so far with both of them? Are we any closer to a cause of death for them? I understand one of them - there was evidence that one had been pregnant recently.

Yeah, so the Blainsville's was reported alive and thrashing prior to dying. And then when we did the necropsy, or dissection, on the animal, we discovered that she still had some milk production, and we could tell that she had recently been nursing a calf, so that calf would have stayed for her for a while.

Do we know if that means that there's a calf out there, perhaps, a yearling? Would it be on its own already?

Well, that's part of what makes beaked whales a little interesting is that something to learn about them is that there's not as much known about their characteristics like this. And so we definitely are trying to learn more just from this case in particular.

Was anything immediately apparent from from the necropsy?

There was a infection in her uterine area. But I don't know if that was an infection that she would have gotten over, or if it could have led to her cause of death. That's why the further testing is really important. But it didn't seem to be very obvious.

And then that second stranding was a Sowerby's beaked whale in Phippsburg.

The second one - she was alive at the time of her stranding that we physically responded to, and there was a local family that was really helpful. And although the prognosis is not always great with live cetacean strandings like this, we did try to give her a chance and refloat her and see if maybe she would end up making it on her own. She did pass a few hours later. And there was nothing obvious - I mean, she was [in] good body condition. She had some wounds from the stranding itself - sometimes when they're starting to get in these shallow waters, they bounce up against rocks and areas that could scratch their their ventral side, which happened to her, and just the stress of the stranding itself. So I don't know how long maybe she had been out of water before being discovered, and the weight of these animals on their internal organs can be really stressful on them. So there is nothing obvious for cause of death for her, but we've sent all the same samples out as well.
 
So cause of death really still to be determined. But now what about the cause of the strandings?

Having two beaked whales in Maine in the short amount of time that showed up really causes us to kind of wonder a little bit. There are things out there like, potentially, sonar testing, which we're looking into, seeing if anything like that was kind of happening at the time that may have brought these animals closer in - just because they may have gotten disoriented from trying to echolocate and do that. But also if there was some infection going on, that could have brought them in closer to shore too.

Linda Doughty is director of Marine Mammals of Maine. Thank you so much.

Thank you.