A necropsy is conducted on a humpback that washed up at the oceanfront. Photos courtesy of the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.

Necropsy Reveals Parallels in Virginia Beach Humpback Whale Deaths

A week after two humpback whales washed up dead in Virginia Beach, marine biologists are revealing the findings of the necropsies (animal autopsies) conducted on those animals. And the two whales, which were both found dead on the same day, have some notable similarities.

While they are not able to yet declare a cause of death, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Stranding Response team completed in-field assessments of the two whales. The first washed up in a popular area of the Virginia Beach oceanfront near 25th Street on Sunday, March 3. That whale was 32 feet long and about 32,000 pounds. The second, spotted floating in the water that same day, stranded at False Cape State Park on Monday, March 4. It measured 27 feet long and weighed about 21,800 pounds.

The second, smaller whale washed up at False Cape State Park the day after the first stranding.

From examining the whales, the Virginia Aquarium team has learned they were both immature/juvenile males. Both had “abnormal skin lesions” the team is now investigating. They also note both whales had healed scars that appear to be from past entanglements with fishing lines, nets or other pollution. An Aquarium spokesperson notes that previous entanglements are “a sub-lethal and chronic part of these animals’ lives”.

This photo, taken during the necropsy of the whale found at False Cape State Park, shows scars from a past entanglement.

The Stranding Response Team took tissue samples, photos and data they will analyze in hopes of determining a cause of death for both whales. That process takes “careful assessment and time,” the Aquarium tells us.

So far in 2024, there have been three humpback whale deaths in the Chesapeake Bay region—the two from last week in Virginia Beach and one at Assateague Island in Maryland. However, whales stranding in the Chesapeake region has been a problem for the last several years, as we’ve extensively reported. Since NOAA declared an Unusual Mortality Event for humpback whales along the Atlantic coast in 2016, at least 215 whales have died.

With the external and internal exams completed on the most recent Virginia Beach cases, both of the whales have been buried at the beaches where they washed up.