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Marine animal society examines Harbourville beached whale carcass


Society and DFO still discussing full necropsy, moving whale

HARBOURVILLE – The Marine Animal Response Society was in Harbourville this morning to begin their analysis of a beached humpback whale carcass first spotted March 18.

The team drove down from Halifax March 20 and arrived at the beach around 9 a.m., finding the carcass moved several hundred feet from where it sat last night on the beach.

Members of the Marine Animal Response Society examine the tail area of the humpback whale carcass that was found beached March 18 near Harbourville. The water has pushed the carcass hundreds of feet from its original location.
Members of the Marine Animal Response Society examine the tail area of the humpback whale carcass that was found beached March 18 near Harbourville. The water has pushed the carcass hundreds of feet from its original location.

With limited access to the hazardous, rocky beach, the team left heavier equipment in Halifax and took small tissue and blubber samples to move toward determining factors that could have led to the whale’s death, according to response coordinator Andrew Reid.

A few dozen people gathered around the whale as MARS members drew samples from the whale’s body, confirming within 95 per cent accuracy that the whale was male and that its body is underweight, appearing starved.

“We really need to look at muscle masses to tell for sure if it hadn’t been feeding for a while. We’d like to find out how the whale died. But without a full necropsy, we don’t have a chance at that,” he said.

Samples of tissue and blubber will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the whale's overall health, and could indicate factors leading to its deterioration, but will not paint a full picture of what specifically led to the whale's death.
Samples of tissue and blubber will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the whale's overall health, and could indicate factors leading to its deterioration, but will not paint a full picture of what specifically led to the whale's death.

What the samples can tell them

Onlookers, like Ruth Watson, remarked on how strange it felt seeing such an animal wash up on shore.

“This is a majestic creature. I’ve never seen anything like this – it seems surreal, like it can’t be a real whale,” she said.

Reid said tissue and blubber samples taken March 20 will be indicative of the whale’s overall health, showing whether it drew on its fat reserves due to lack of food.

“The thickness will give us a good indication on what this whale’s health was like at its time of death and will provide a good place to start determine specific factors,” he said.

“But again, that full analysis is really key here.”

The carcass presents a unique opportunity for analysis, according to MARS response coordinator Andrew Reid. "We want to find out how it died," he said.
The carcass presents a unique opportunity for analysis, according to MARS response coordinator Andrew Reid. "We want to find out how it died," he said.

The carcass’ current lack of decomposition also provides MARS with a unique opportunity, according to Reid.

“We do believe all large whales should be necropsied, especially this one – there’s a much better chance it could actually reveal something. Usually the carcass is quite badly decomposed, and there’s information lost in that process,” he said.

DFO and MARS coordinating next moves

The society is working closely with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to decide what comes next in analyzing the carcass.

Reid hopes the society and DFO can work together to decide how to best address the situation.

MARS members also shot footage of marks on skin, other possible signs of injury to paint as full a picture as possible.
MARS members also shot footage of marks on skin, other possible signs of injury to paint as full a picture as possible.

DFO spokesperson Debbie Buott-Matheson confirmed internal discussions at the department, along with meetings with MARS, are ongoing, and that DFO is responsible for moving the carcass if a necropsy is arranged.

And if it does happen, Reid said the body will need to be moved, a process that will pose some challenges.

“This time of year and location have created logistical challenges. This will be a big task, but we are hopeful we can work with DFO on how to best address this,” said Reid.

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