Rare whale lands in rarer venue: Baltimore

Carcass caught on freighter's bow

April 19, 2006|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

A team of scientists is trying to figure out how a member of a rare species of whale, normally found in the deepest waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, ended up dead in the least likely place: Baltimore's urban Patapsco River.

The 35-foot sei whale, part of an endangered species related to the blue whale, was found stuck on a torpedo-like bulb protruding from the bow of an 800-foot cargo ship that had traveled from Boston.

But scientists don't know whether the ship hit the whale and killed it, or it was already dead when it became wrapped around the bow, said Tricia Kimmel, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Researchers also don't know how long the MSC Johannesburg might have been dragging the huge mammal.

At the Seagirt Marine Terminal yesterday, tugboats with ropes pulled the 17,000-pound animal off the ship's bow. Then the whale was hefted onto a flatbed truck, hauled over the Key Bridge with a police escort and dragged off the truck by bulldozers with chains at the city's Quarantine Road Landfill.

There, biologists from the Smithsonian Institution, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the National Aquarium in Baltimore are performing a necropsy -- an animal autopsy -- to discover the cause of death.

"Whales are very uncommon in the Chesapeake Bay," said Kimmel. "A whale like this is nothing compared to an 800-foot ship. The ship apparently came up most of the bay before they even realized the whale was stuck to the bow."

As long as a bus and the color of slate, the body made a thunderous sound as it flopped off the truck onto the dirt of the landfill, stirring a cloud of flies. Its flukes broken, bones protruding, jaws lolling at an unnatural angle, the animal looked badly battered and peppered with cuts and scrapes.

"Whales do get struck by ships from time to time, and it's unfortunate," Kimmel said.

The last time a whale was verified in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay was in 1999, when a dead minke whale washed up on Love Point near Kent Island.

About 50,000 sei (pronounced "say") whales are believed to survive in the world, mostly in the subarctic regions of the Atlantic and Pacific, said Jenny Yates, a spokeswoman for the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

"It's extremely rare to find sei whales in strandings, and we don't know much about them," said Yates. "They have a relatively small population, as far as we know. And they are a protected species -- there is no international trade allowed in these animals."

Most hunting for sei whales was banned in the 1970s and 1980s, after about 80 percent of them were wiped out by whalers.

Often confused with similar-looking blue whales, sei whales are smaller than blues but larger than sperm whales. Sei were less desired by the industry during the 19th century because they have a thinner layer of blubber than the North Atlantic right whale or other species. But when the right and finback were decimated, the whalers turned to the sei as an alternative.

The sei might be the fastest of the large whales, able to cruise at up to 40 mph. They usually travel alone or in groups of five or fewer, migrating thousands of miles from arctic to equatorial waters. The sei eat shrimp and krill by straining water through their filter-like baleen, which look like brushes inside their mouths.

As few as 2,200 sei whales are believed to remain in U.S. waters, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Ginette Hemley, vice president for species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, said ships often accidentally kill whales by ramming into them. This is especially true for right whales, which are more endangered than sei whales.

"For large whales, including some that are endangered, ship strikes are a big problem," Hemley said. "We are trying to get the shipping lanes moved out of critical habitat waters."

Jonathan Stern, a California biologist and conservation chairman for the American Cetacean Society, said the Baltimore incident is highly unusual because sei whales are normally found far offshore.

But he said he has heard a number of accounts of whales being killed and carried by the torpedo-like protrusions that stick beneath the water from the bows of some large cargo ships. The whales can't sink because they rest on top of the bulbs.

"There have been several accounts of large whales that are struck by ships and just wrapped around that bow protrusion, and the ships carry them for hundreds of miles, and the people on the ships don't even know there's been a strike," Stern said. "It's unfortunate, but these ships are huge, and they have a lot of mass and inertia behind them."

After the whale was dumped at the landfill yesterday, scientists wearing yellow rain gear and purple gloves examined the animal.

Charlie Potter, collection manager for marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution, measured the whale with yellow tape. He peered into the gaping mouth, ignoring a powerful reek, then examined the body's cuts and injuries carefully.

"That's a scar, and that's a scar and that's a scar," he said, pointing out white lines to biologists.

Potter carried a rubber boot filled with knives, hooks and tools.

"Let's open it up," he said, wielding a long, serrated blade.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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