Swimmers and sunbathers were shocked to see an uninvited guest this Friday as a 17-foot-long female whale weighing almost a ton washed ashore on Jones Beach in Plymouth, Mass. Unfortunately, the whale was dead by the time it washed ashore and beachgoers couldn’t help the poor animal return to the water.
These toothed whales are notable for their elongated beaks. Among air-breathing animals, beaked whales are some of the most extreme divers: Cuvier’s beaked whales regularly dive for an hour at a depth over 1,000 m (3,300 ft), and the longest and deepest foraging dive recorded is 137.5 minutes and 2,992 m (9,816 ft). This is the greatest dive-depth known for a mammal.
The aquarium said in a statement Saturday that beaked whales are “so rarely seen that New England Aquarium biologists have been conferring to determine the exact species,” according to the Boston Globe. The aquarium has not seen a beaked whale in close to a decade, the statement said. Usually, sightings of Sowerby’s beaked whales are limited to fishermen who find the whales caught in their nets.
The New England Aquarium believe the animal was a Sowerby’s beaked whale, a species of deep-water whale that inhabits northern waters and virtually never approaches the shore.
“It’s a glimpse into a habitat that’s not so far away, but it’s still a world away,” aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse told the Boston Herald of the sighting. “They live in a world of their own.”
As of Saturday, the aquarium and the International Fund for Animal Welfare were jointly conducting a necropsy on the whale, which upon initial examination showed no signs of having collided with a boat or become tangled in fishing gear, the Globe reported. The carcass’s “fresh,” “good” condition combined with its unusual location have biologists questioning the “how” and the “why” behind the whale’s appearance.
“They’re very, very rare,” Mr. LaCasse told the Herald. “It’s definitely one of those things you’re not quite sure what to make of,” he said.
Plymouth harbormaster Chad Hunter told the Globe officials were alerted Friday at around 10 a.m. that a whale had washed up onto the beach. But during low tide, the whale was stuck on rocks and could not be moved. When high tide came around 5 p.m. that day, the whale was towed to the pier and crane-lifted onto a trailer to be taken away by the aquarium.
Mary Kate McHugh DiLoreto, a regular beach walker, posted a picture of the whale to Facebook, calling the sighting “very cool.”
Sowerby’s beaked whales are not believed to be rare – just rarely spotted. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, sightings are uncommon and biologists know little about the whale despite the fact that it is one of the most frequently stranded species. Massachusetts marks the southern border of the whale’s habitat; in the west, it extends up to Labrador, Canada, and in the east, it ranges from Iceland to Norway.
LaCasse told the Globe the sighting offers “a glancing insight into a marine species that not much is known of.”