A dead humpback whale washed up onto Assateague Island. Experts wonder why.

The 33-foot-long whale is the 13th dead whale to be found dead along the central Atlantic coast in recent weeks

Published 1/18/2023 2:00 p.m. EST, Updated 1/18/2023 6:11 p.m. EST

The body of young female humpback whale washed up on the shores of Assateague Island on Monday. It is the tenth dead whale to appear on a stretch of shore from New York to North Carolina in recent weeks.

The body of a young female humpback whale washed up at Assateague Island National Seashore Monday, officials said. It’s the 13th dead whale to appear along the Atlantic coast from New York to North Carolina in recent weeks.

“From what I understand, there’s some bruising that could indicate a vessel strike, but it’s unclear if that was the cause of death,” said Allison Ferreira, a spokeswoman for the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

Scientists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources took the lead Tuesday on a necropsy of the dead whale, with assistance from experts from the National Aquarium. The results of the necropsy were not immediately available, according to NOAA.

Since early December, seven dead whales have been found along the coasts of New York and New Jersey, according to media reports and NOAA. Four dead whales have also been found during the same period in North Carolina, and one was found in Virginia Beach, according to NOAA.

The deaths come as part of an “unusual mortality event” involving humpbacks, said Sarah Wilkin, coordinator of the NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, in a Wednesday afternoon conference call with reporters. Since 2016, 178 dead humpback whales have been found along the Eastern Seaboard, she said.

The cause of the uptick in deaths is not immediately apparent, Wilkins said. Researchers have performed necropsies on about half of the dead whales. Of those, about 40% appeared to have died after getting struck by a ship or boat or being entangled by a net, she said. The causes of other deaths are inconclusive.

Humpback whales can live as long as 90 years, can grow up to 60 feet long and weigh as much as 40 tons, according to NOAA. They eat small crustaceans and travel as far as 5,000 miles as part of their seasonal migrations.

The population of humpback whales has rebounded over the past 40 years, and more whales lead to more accidental deaths, Wilkins said. Recently, many have followed prey to shallow waters off the mid-Atlantic coast, she said.

Brian Hooker, deputy chief for the permits and conservation division of NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Protected Resources, said the spate of whale deaths was not connected to preparations for the construction of wind farms along the Jersey shore. Workers are currently testing the sea floor there by using equipment that emits sounds, he said.

“There is no known connection between offshore wind activity and any whale strandings, regardless of species,” Hooker said.

The whale found at Assateague was 33 feet long and appeared to be a juvenile female, Ferreira said. It’s a similar size and age to a whale recently found on the Jersey shore, she said. Wilkins said the majority of dead humpbacks found in recent years have been juveniles.

The latest discovery was on the Maryland side of the national seashore, about five miles from the nearest parking lot, according to Liz Davis, chief of interpretation and education for the park. The national seashore is about 10 miles south of Ocean City.

Now that the necropsy is complete, the whale’s carcass will be moved behind a dune and left to dry out and decay for several months, Davis said. “It will be scavenged by all sorts of birds, insects and the mammals on the island, foxes and raccoons,” she said. Park workers will then bury it in the sand before summer visitors arrive, she said.

The whale’s carcass is protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which means visitors cannot remove any part of it. “Scavenging anything from a barnacle to a bone is completely illegal,” Davis said.

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