Va. Aquarium performs necropsy on whale found dead in waters of Newport News

A dead whale on Craney Island, where researchers were set to perform a necropsy on Dec. 13, 2017. (Credit: WAVY/Walter Hildebrand).

CRANEY ISLAND, Va. (WAVY) — It’s wasn’t the ideal way viewing these animals, but Wednesday on Craney Island, a crew from the Virginia Aquarium conducted, well, a whale of a necropsy.

“It is a tragedy, but it also is an incredible learning experience and a very important scientific investigation,” said Susan Barco with the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. “It is a tremendous undertaking, and it’s a fascinating undertaking.”

The whale in this case was a juvenile fin whale, found clinging to a sandbar off Newport News.

Gallery: Virginia Aquarium performs necropsy on whale

“The head was facing offshore but it wasn’t moving,” Barco said. “As the tide came in, we decided that the whale was not in good shape and we decided to attempt euthanasia just to put it out of it’s suffering.”

The hope was to find clues as to why she met her end at such a young age.

“We rarely get to work with an animal that’s really fresh and so for example we’re gonna try to get some samples that we wouldn’t usually get on a whale that’s stranded dead,” Barco added.  “Often if there’s something like blunt trauma, we won’t see any external marks.”

Credit: WAVY/Walter Hildebrand

Scientists scan for broken bones, check internal organs, study the brain and the eyes and take fluid samples.

They did notice something on the whale’s tail, where a cookie cutter shark picked the wrong place to get a snack.

“Couldn’t get a good bit and slid right off,” Barco said.

The fin whale is no tourist to the waters off Hampton Roads, which is why the necropsy was so important.


“We see them fairly regularly, they’re not as commonly as humpback whales, at least not close to shore, but we do see them fairly regularly,” Barco said. “We want to learn as much as we can about this whale’s life before it died, and why it was stranded and whether there’s anything we can do to help prevent future deaths.”

Matthew Klepeisz from the Virginia Aquarium said later on Wednesday that initial results showed an excessive amount of parasites in the whale’s kidneys, which likely led to its death. He says they’ll know more after they receive the final results from the histopathologist.
WAVY will update the final results as they become available.