Finback Whale on Ice, Eastham, Cape Cod


Sue Wieber Nourse with 40-Foot Finback Whale

First spotted in Wellfleet Harbor on Wednesday, a 40-foot finback whale stranded six miles down the shore at Dyer Prince Beach off Boat Meadow Creek in Eastham, Massachusetts.  Ocean effect snow had dropped six to eight inches on the Outer Cape Wednesday night and rescuers discoverd this marine mammal early Thursday morning already trapped in ice and snow.  It quickly succumbed to these impossible conditions.


40-Foot Finback Whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

While we mourn the whale’s passing, these Arctic conditions offered a rare opportunity for scientists and marine educators.  Rescuers would normally remove the carcass immediately from the beach or perform a detailed  necropsy in situ, depending on circumstances, to get a jump on decomposition.  In this case, conditions were simply too harsh, too difficult to operate in the ice … yet the ice also preserved the animal by slowing the process of decomposition.

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Physical Survey of Stranded Finback Whale

We rarely have a chance to see an intact whale of this size in such pristine condition.  Even a cursory examination of the finback helps to reverse our preconceptions of whales.  Our brains have created a whale image as a huge, bulky, cumbersome animal, somewhat akin to an elephant with fins rather than feet.


Finback Whale: Greyhound of the Sea

To the contrary, finbacks show how sleek, swift and powerful whales can be.  The finback is the second largest whale, behind only the blue whale — the largest animal ever to grace Planet Earth, yet finbacks proudly carry the moniker of greyhounds of the sea.  Finbacks, also called fin whales, are considered an endangered species.


Finback Whale Baleen

Like other such great marine mammals, giant finbacks feed on the smallest critters … just lots and lots of them.  A toothless or baleen whale, finbacks filter ocean to sift for their prey.

NOTE:  You may have noticed in the video clip that the finback’s tail had nearly been severed.  Vandals had attacked the carcass sometime after rescuers had left on Friday and early Saturday morning, apparently attempting to remove the tail.  While they didn’t succeed in this attempt, they did manage to make things more difficult for scientists who had hoped to remove the animal after the ice melts by towing it to an appropriate location to conduct a necropsy.  Typically, towing such a large carcass entails tying a line around the tail.  Authorities are pursuing leads to identify and apprehend the vandals.

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Town of Wellfleet Rescue Team on Lieutenant Island

After documenting the finback in Eastham, the Turtle Journal team drove to Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet to inspect how our research sites were weathering this harsh winter.  Looking over Lieutenant Island from Old Wharf heights, we had spotted a number of shellfishermen and aquaculturists working the tidal flats between enormous icebergs.  Apparently, someone had called in a report that one of these folks might be in distress, because as we tried to leave Turtle Point, our path was blocked by several police cruisers, fire trucks and other sundry emergency vehicles.  Our hats are off to the Wellfleet rescue team.  They take very seriously any potential threat to life in Arctic-like conditions on the Outer Cape.

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