GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 23, 2012

Rockport to let nature 'take its course' on whale

By Marjorie Nesin Staff Writer
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — ROCKPORT — A dead whale, estimated to be about 54 foot long, lied sprawled across a Penzance Road beachfront Monday after washing up over the weekend, drawing spectators from Rockport and from beyond Cape Ann.

But, there will be more time to view the whale, since that beachfront is where it will stay until nature takes its course, officials are saying.

Rockport’s Department of Public Works, in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was tasked with disposing the carcass, after the whale — estimated to have been dead for two to three weeks — rolled onto the rocky, jagged beachfront Saturday morning.

The carcass is located on town-owned property that is situated among a handful of homes, less than about 50 feet from the closest home. In the past, Rockport officials have buried smaller whales that washed up on beaches, but because large equipment would be unable to reach this beach, DPW Director Joe Parisi said officials have little choice but to let the carcass deteriorate and wash out to sea bit by bit.

“This whale is pretty large and in a difficult location so the options aren’t the same,” Parisi said. “It’s nearly impossible.”

Neither NOAA nor the Public Works department had a plan for diluting the stench of the rotting carcass, either. But Parisi is hopeful that the oncoming cold weather will tamper the smell.

“It’s not the heart of the beach season and it’s not in a location where people are going to the beach,” Parisi added

Volunteers from the New England Aquarium traveled to Rockport Saturday morning to measure the whale, examine it and attempt to determine what had happened to the male animal, according to Tony LaCasse of the New England Aquarium.

“Our job is we are essentially the whale coroner,” LaCasse said. “This whale is too old to have any significant findings.”

Though the whale had been dead too long for the volunteers to decipher the cause of death, they were able to determine that the whale is the same one that was spotted in Boston Harbor and washed up on two islands there weeks ago, according to LaCasse. He said the tide pulled the whale from the Boston Harbor island out to sea and then to Rockport.

The examiners in Boston had taken photos of the dead whale when it was beached there for days. Aquarium officials compared the markings and rate of decomposition of the Rockport whale and found everything matched up, according to LaCasse.

And, LaCasse said, “there just aren’t that many dead 50 ton whales hanging around.”

Finback whales, an endangered species, are the second longest whale in the world, and known for their slender, agile and quick bodies. A pleated stomach allows the mammal, averaging in at about 60 feet long, to fill itself with water containing pools of fish. Then the whale squeezes and filters the water through its baleen, hanging onto kelp and fish to swallow.

LaCasse said finbacks are the second most common whale seen on a whale watch out of Gloucester, after the humpback. The finbacks show their tails before making small jumps out of the water then zipping along at speeds up to 25 miles per hour.

“They’ll remember the finbacks because where the humpback is so spectacular, the finbacks are all business...they’re always sort of a little more modest in the water,” LaCasse said.

The finback Monday lay striped belly-up on the shore, pieces of its bristly baleen strewn closer to the rising tide, its tail embedded with rocks and its fins jutting out to the sides. Some leathery skin remained intact on its sides.

Two women drove from Beverly to see the beached body.

“When am I going to get to see a whale this close again?” Gloria Masih asked her wife Jackie.

They walked a circle around the whale, pointing out its eyes and holding their shirts over their mouths as they stood downwind of the body, noting the shredded tail.

Seagulls marched nearby, but kept their distance from the dead whale, seemingly disinterested. Rockporter Mary Eirich noted the seagulls’ lack of interest, after she and her husband Tom went to see the whale, which they heard about during a Rockport recreation class.

“I suppose even seagulls have their standards,” Eirich said.

Marie Alfieri and Sylvia DeRosa, both longtime Rockport residents, said they had experienced a lot of ocean side events in their seventeen years of residence, but this type of whale siting was a first.

“We thought we’d seen it all, but never this,” Alfieri said.

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.