Team assesses, performs necropsy on humpback whale washed up in Nags Head

Published 11:32 am Friday, March 6, 2020

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On Thursday, March 5, a deceased juvenile humpback whale washed up in Nags Head near milepost 13. Members of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network came to perform a necropsy on the male humpback the morning of March 6.

Kelly Koehler, a student at NC State University and volunteer with the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST), said she had traveled three hours from Morehead City to come assist with the necropsy. After an initial assessment of the whale, Koehler’s assumption was that the cause of death was by entanglement, most likely fishing net entanglement.

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“See all those marks?” she asked, pointing to lacerations on the whale’s fins. Koehler said otherwise, the young male looked healthy from first observations.

The whale’s tongue was protruding from his mouth while the necropsy was performed. The tongue had inflamed legions, which Koehler stated were likely to be found throughout the body and happened after the whale had died.

Karen Clark with the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education was on site during the necropsy. Following the assessments, Clark said specimens were removed and taken to histology to be examined in a laboratory.

After looking inside the humpback, Clark said the decomposition rate was high and there were no internal signs that the cause of death was due to entanglement. However, she said “it certainly had entanglement impressions.”

Clark said that after the specimens are tested in lab, the results will determine whether or not the animal was entangled pre- or post-death, as either is possible at this point.

It is common for humpbacks to migrate during this time of year, making their way down to the Caribbean for the summer months. Along their migration route, humpbacks can sometimes be seen offshore in the Outer Banks area.

Clark said this time last year the Outer Banks saw four whales wash up on shore, which was higher than the usual amount. So far this season, the juvenile humpback was only the second one to touch shore in the Outer Banks.

Once specimens were taken, Clark said the whale’s body was turned over to the Town of Nags Head. It is standard practice for municipalities to bury the remains of the carcass on site. In this case, some remains were buried and the rest were taken by the Nags Head Public Works department to a landfill.



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