Home Two deceased whales, two days: First necropsy complete; mammal buried deep in sand

Two deceased whales, two days: First necropsy complete; mammal buried deep in sand

Crystal Graham
right whale
(© rm – stock.adobe.com)

Two whales have washed up in the Virginia Beach area in recent days – one along the oceanfront near 25th Street on Sunday. The second whale washed ashore at False Cape State Park in Sandbridge this morning.

A necropsy of the deceased humpback whale that washed ashore at the oceanfront was performed today by the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center stranding response team.

The whale, the aquarium reports, was a juvenile male, measuring 32 feet in length, with an estimated weight of 32,000 lbs.

“During the necropsy, the team examined the animal’s remains in full – collecting samples, photos, and data to assess the whale’s health status and potentially find clues for a cause of death, though finding a cause is not guaranteed,” a statement from the aquarium read.

The stranding response team also looks for obvious signs of death including injuries from a vessel strike or netting – the two leading causes of death for large whales.

Onlookers reported an odor associated with the deceased whale.

After the necropsy was complete, using construction equipment, the remains of the whale were buried in the sand. The aquarium said this is standard procedure for deceased whales. The whale is buried deep enough as to not interfere with beach activity, the aquarium said.

The Virginia Aquarium team will also perform the necropsy on the second deceased whale in Sandbridge.

“While we wait for the results of the investigation into these whale deaths, we know that all large whales face the same threats as North Atlantic right whales – entanglements and boat strikes,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana Campaign Director. “Updating fishing and boat regulations will undoubtedly make the oceans safer for all large whales, and NOAA must move forward with meaningful action to reduce whale risk in the U.S. Atlantic.”

In 2023, a 20-year-old male North Atlantic right whale washed ashore Feb. 12 in Virginia Beach. Experts determined the whale died from a blunt force traumatic injury which impacted a large portion of the whale’s spinal column. The injuries were reported to be consistent with a vessel strike, according to NOAA Fisheries.

An analysis by Oceana released less than a month after the discovery of the whale found that in the weeks leading up to the deadly boat strike, hundreds of boats were speeding through both mandatory and voluntary slow zones designed to protect right whales in the Virginia Beach area.

“Speeding boats and slow swimming whales are a recipe for disaster, but a preventable one. Current vessel speed limits are ineffective and made worse by the fact that they aren’t even properly enforced,” said Brogan in a March 9, 2023, news release.

Using a tool launched by Oceana to monitor ship speeds in slow zones established to protect North Atlantic right whales, Oceana documented that during the period of Feb. 1 – 11, 2023: 

  • More than 200 boats larger than 65 feet long traveled through slow zones established by NOAA at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
  • Nearly 7 out of 10 boats (158 boats) traveled above the speed limit of 10 knots (11.5 MPH) through either mandatory or voluntary slow zones.
  • One boat traveled as fast as 23.2 knots (26.7 MPH) — more than double the speed limit — within a designated mandatory slow zone.
  • Around half of the boats (106 boats) were found speeding in the mandatory slow zones.
  • In the days immediately preceding the discovery of the dead whale on Feb. 12, more than 75 percent of the boats (77 boats) did not comply with the mandatory or voluntary speed limits between February 8 and 11.

Studies have shown that slowing boats to 10 knots reduces a whale’s risk of death by boat collision by 80 to 90 percent.

In total, six whales were observed dead in the state of Virginia (offshore included) in 2023.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.