Pygmy Sperm Whale

Pygmy Sperm Whale
Campers taking part in the Brad Sneeden Marine Science Camp got a rare opportunity to see marine science in action Monday, when a dead beached whale was discovered at Fort Macon State Park.

A visitor at Fort Macon reported the beached whale to park rangers, who informed the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Dr. Vicky Thayer, coordinator for the national network's state branch, responded with a response team to the call, going out to Fort Macon with staff from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, the N.C. State University Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City, the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, UNC Wilmington and the N.C. Maritime Museum, also in Beaufort.

Dr. Thayer had been scheduled to speak to the 33 students in the science camp, when she got the call about the beached whale. The campers were scheduled to attend a necropsy at one of the local marine labs, but instead they got to see Dr. Thayer and her team in action.

A Marine Mammal Stranding Response Team performs a necropsy Monday on a beached whale at Fort Macon State Park.
© Mike Shutak
A Marine Mammal Stranding Response Team performs a necropsy Monday on a beached whale at Fort Macon State Park.
"This is a pleasant surprise and a great learning opportunity," said Tanya Scott, a teacher with Newport Middle School and a counselor for the camp. "The whole camp is about appreciating marine science."

Both Dr. Thayer and Fort Macon Superintendent Randy Newman said beaked whales are uncommon sights for the waters around Carteret County.

However, Dr. Andrew Read, DUML director, said they're more commonly seen 45-50 miles offshore from Cape Hatteras.

"This species holds the record for the deepest diving (whales)," he said. "They can stay submerged for up to 75 minutes. It's a protected species, like all whales, but not endangered."

Dr. Read said not much is known about beaked whales. Since they spend so much time at depths of up to 1,000 feet below the surface, studying them can be difficult. He said scientists have tagged some off of Cape Hatteras, where they estimate the numbers to be around 200 in that area alone.

"It's unusual for us to get a fresh animal on the beach," Dr. Read said.

Judging by the size, Dr. Read said the beached whale had reached maturity. There were no exterior signs of trauma, and Dr. Read said the whale might have been driven to shore by sound. However, he said they won't be able to determine the cause of death until the necropsy is complete, which may take several months.

Dr. Thayer said this whale is the first one reported from Carteret County this summer. However, she said summer is frequently a slow period for whale strandings.

Fort Macon Park Ranger Paul Terry said while whale beachings aren't unheard of at Fort Macon, it's not a common occurrence.

"The last one we had was three to four years ago," he said, "a pygmy sperm whale."

Source: Carteret County News-Times