Necropsy: Plastic debris may have caused whale’s death

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Marine biologists have completed a necropsy of the 45-foot whale that died in a Norfolk Creek Thursday, shedding light onto what may have caused its demise.

The Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team had been tracking the female sei whale since late last week, when it was spotted in the Elizabeth River. The whale moved near the Gilmerton Bridge Wednesday before it was found deceased in St. Julien’s Creek Thursday.

Virginia Marine Police and Chesapeake police boats towed the whale’s body to Craney Island in Portsmouth on Thursday, where the necropsy was performed.

Virginia Aquarium employees measuring sei whale (photo courtesy Virginia Aquarium).
Virginia Aquarium employees measuring sei whale (photo courtesy Virginia Aquarium).

Photos: Crews begin necropsy on whale

Virginia Aquarium spokeswoman Joan Barns said the necropsy found a large piece of sharp, black plastic in the whale’s stomach, which may have damaged the stomach lining, and kept the mammal from feeding normally. She said there was no evidence the whale had eaten recently.

“It is possible that the whale was weak from lack of feeding due to the foreign material in its stomach. This may explain why it wandered into an unusual area like the Elizabeth River,” Aquarium Research Coordinator Susan Barco said.

The response team also discovered injuries consistent with the whale being hit by a ship, though it was not clear if that could have been the direct cause of death.

Piece of plastic found in whale's stomach (Photo courtesy the Virginia Aquarium).
Piece of plastic found in whale’s stomach (Photo courtesy the Virginia Aquarium).

“We’ve seen some evidence of what we would term light [blunt force] trauma,” Barco said. “There’s staining in the muscle, consistent with hemorrhage, and there are broken spines on the vertebrae in the thoracic and lumbar region.”

There was also a large area of bruising, but very little external damage. That makes the biologists think the ship may have been traveling slowly when it hit the whale.

“I think the necropsy today shows that the animal was compromised, and there would have really been nothing we could have done, even had we known what its injuries involved,” Barco said. “Trauma like this is not something that can be treated in a 45-foot free-swimming whale.”

Barns said tissues samples were taken Friday and a veterinary pathologist will analyze it over the next several weeks or months.

“We hope that the pathologist’s review will help determine the significance of today’s findings and provide a potential timeline or sequence of events leading up to the whale’s death,” Barns said.

Biologists determined the whale was relatively young, not sexually mature, and weighed about 8 to 10 tons.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to bury the whale on Craney Island.

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