“Whoah, check out this whale!”
“There’s a whale? Where?” I asked excitedly, scanning the horizon.
My question turned out to be an unnecessary one when I saw that the whale was practically at my feet, washed up on the rocky shore of Sheep Island, right across from Kent Island. The whale was smaller than I had expected, not to mention dead. It was lying on its back, its large, pleated throat exposed, its flippers splayed. The carcass was that of a male humpback, its body partially deflated and its skin running with oil from the fatty blubber that was melting in the sun. I didn’t notice the stench until I was downwind of the animal; the smell of burned rubber stayed in my nose for hours afterwards. The whale was covered in sinewy tissue streaked with black, dark red, and orange, which Damon later explained was the exposed collagen fiber of its blubber. Near the carcass was a clump of stiff brown bristles—a piece of the whale’s baleen.
Humpbacks are “gulp feeders,” so named because their pleated skin allows their throats to expand and take in tons of water. Baleen is composed of the same carotene that makes up human hair and nails, and is used to filter food, mostly herring and krill, from large volumes of water. Atlantic humpback whales migrate from the Caribbean, where they calve in the winter, to the coast of New England and Canada in the summer. From its relatively small size (adults can grow to up to 50 feet long and can weigh 50 tons), we guessed that the unlucky humpback on Sheep Island was a juvenile, probably younger than a year old. Humpback whales are on the endangered species list in the U.S., though their numbers have come back in recent years, and Northern Pacific humpbacks have been taken off the Canadian list. The main causes of whale death are ship strike and entanglement in fishing gear, though this calf was likely a victim of natural causes, because calf mortality far exceeds adult mortality. While this humpback survived its first seasonal migration, the farthest of any mammal, its song was stifled by an early death. Later in the summer we will have an opportunity to go whale watching, and will hopefully see these strange and ancient creates in action.
NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, “Humpback Whale,” February 25, 2014.http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/humpbackwhale.htm