Dead Fin Whale Attracts Attention On Virginia Island

April 28, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

WACHAPREAGUE, Va. -- The tale of the whale was the talk of the town all weekend.

From the well-worn docks of this 150-year-old fishing village to the tables in a local eatery, people were abuzz with the discovery of a fin whale that washed ashore on nearby Cedar Island late last week.

"It's pretty unusual to have a 65-foot whale beach in these parts," said Randy Lewis. He owns the Island House Restaurant, the largest dining establishment in the town of 300.

His brother-in-law, Nat Atkinson, steered his weekend charter fishing trips so that passengers could see the whale, lying gutted on a remote beach, Lewis said. His sister, Susie Atkinson, showed off her pictures of the mammal to diners all weekend.

Biologists had descended on the whale's remains on Friday, hoping to learn more about the animal and why it died. Wielding long flensing knives, they opened the whale's side and removed tissue samples for study by the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach and the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory in Oxford, Md.

Fin whales, which can live 100 years, were heavily hunted by whalers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are protected by federal law and international treaties.

Cause of death unknown

Don Baugh, vice president for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said most mature whales that wash ashore dead are found to have been struck by ships. This one, however, did not appear to have been injured.

It may have died of an infection, disease, or a scarcity of winter food, he said.

By yesterday, the whale's smelly remains lay about 100 feet from the water, its head pointed north. Sand had begun to rise around the carcass, leaving only about four feet exposed above the sand. A large pile of its innards was spilled alongside.

Cedar Island is one of the dozen barrier islands near Wachapreague. It is privately owned, with no water or electricity and only a handful of houses overlooking the beach. Despite the remote location, plenty of local people had ventured out to see it and take pictures.

"I came back and everybody was talking about it," said Mark Luckenbach, scientist in charge of the Eastern Shore laboratory of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Top topic

Luckenbach said he had been out of town for a week, and stopped by a local grocery store Saturday. "Everybody was asking about the whale," he said. He took his two sons, two of their friends and a reporter to see the whale yesterday afternoon.

"Cool," said Patrick Luckenbach, 6, as he surveyed the massive carcass.

It was not the first unusual find on the barrier islands that shield Wachapreague from the Atlantic. Fossil teeth, a mastodon skull and other animals have been found in the area, Luckenbach said.

But it was undoubtedly the biggest. Residents measured the whale at 65 feet. Even yesterday, two days after scientists removed parts of it for study, the whale was visible from almost the entire length of the 1 1/4-mile island.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

Staff writer Frank D. Roylance contributed to this article.

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