A necropsy is being done to determine the cause of the 20-foot-long humpback whale's death. Photo: Allen Sklar

Dead Humpback Whale Washes Ashore on Assateague Beach

As concern grows for whales along the mid-Atlantic coast, a dead humpback whale has been found on the beach at Assateague Island National Seashore.

The dead whale is about 20 feet long, and was found washed up Monday morning in the Maryland Oversand Vehicle Area (OSV). The National Park Service has closed the OSV at the 21.8KM mark so that experts can safely deal with the carcass.

National Park Service staff at the National Seashore contacted the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), whose Stranding Response Program is conducting a necropsy, together with the National Aquarium. DNR consults with the aquarium and also NOAA Fisheries and the Smithsonian on strandings in Maryland.

The National Seashore said there was no initially obvious signs to point to a cause of death.

Humpbacks can grow up to 60 feet long, and calves are 13-16 feet long at birth. So it’s likely this whale was young.

Ultimately, the Assateague Island National Seashore is the land manager and is responsible for disposing of the carcass. After the necropsy is complete, National Park Service (NPS) staff will use heavy equipment to move the whale to the dunes where it will dry out before being buried and breaking down as nature intended.

NPS says any visitors who come across the whale should keep a distance and keep dogs leashed. All marine mammals (alive or dead) and all parts of this whale are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and collecting any parts of it is prohibited.

This whale comes on the heels of a string of whale deaths up the mid-Atlantic coast, including seven in New Jersey since December. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries have been monitoring an Unusual Mortality Event for humpbacks since January 2016. In those seven years, 177 humpback deaths have been reported.

There are a lot of theories about what is causing the deaths included in the Unusual Mortality Event. A NOAA Fisheries spokesperson tells Bay Bulletin, “Of the whales examined, about ~40% had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement. To date, no whale mortality has been attributed to offshore wind activities.”

Different species of whales are migrating along the coast this time of year.

Off of Ocean City, the presence of North Atlantic right whales was detected on Monday, putting a 15-day right whale SLOW zone into effect. Mariners are asked to avoid the area or travel at 10 knots or less where clusters of the federally-protected whales have been detected. See the NOAA Fisheries website for more information on the SLOW zone.

If you see a whale or any other marine mammal or turtle washed ashore, please contact your local stranding network. In Maryland, you can call the Maryland Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Response Program at 1-800-628-9944. In Virginia, call the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Stranding Response Program at (757) 385-7575. 

-Meg Walburn Viviano