This female humpback whale, nicknamed "Pivot", was well-known in the Gulf of Maine and had been tracked since 2008. Photo: Maryland DNR Fisheries/Facebook

Well-known Humpback Whale Strands and Dies at Assateague Island

Passersby made a sad discovery on the shore of Assateague Island National Seashore.

A 30-ton, 15-year-old female humpback whale stranded and was found dead late last month, and it turns out she was well-known on the East Coast, with a regular history of sightings in the Gulf of Maine since she was first catalogued back in 2008.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries responded to the stranding of the whale nicknamed “Pivot”, with help from Greater Atlantic Region Marine Mammal Stranding Network¬†and the National Park Service at Assateague. With limited samples collected for research, moving the whale from the beach proved to be a challenge.

The Superintendent of Assateague Island National Seashore says it took park staff and heavy equipment operators five hours over two days to succesfully move the 30-ton mammal.

“The whale will be allowed to decompose naturally, as would any dead wild animal within the boundaries of the Seashore. Be advised that there will be a period when this process includes strong unpleasant smells. For that reason approaching the carcass is not advised,” the National Seashore superintendent writes in a Facebook post.

The agency also reminds people that the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to collect or take any parts of a dead marine mammal.

Humpbacks are believed to migrate well offshore of Maryland to reach their breeding grounds in the Caribbean, but some do feed inshore during winter. It’s not clear whether this whale was on her north or southbound migration or making an inshore stop before Assateague became her final resting place.

Pivot had been spotted nearly every year by researchers as well as whale-watchers in the Gulf of Maine since the first sighting in 2008, says Center for Coastal Studies Senior Scientist Jooke Robbins, director of the Humpback Whale Studies Program.

She was easily identified by a mark on her right fluke that resembled a geometry compass, the kind that pivots to draw an arc. That’s how she got the name Pivot, Robbins tells us.

Humpback whales are no longer on the endangered special list, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries declared an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event along the Atlantic coast back in 2016. Pivot is the 147th whale stranded from Maine to Florida during the event, including three in Maryland and 24 in Virginia.

Kate Goggin of NOAA Fisheries tells Bay Bulletin that due to logistical constraints and safety concerns, a full necropsy will not be performed. Pivot’s cause of death is still unknown.

-Meg Walburn Viviano