Pilot Whale Strands, Dies At Harding's Beach

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Marine Mammals , Whales , Strandings , Coast Guard , Chatham , Beaches

Misty Niemeyer, IFAW necropsy coordinator, and Katherine McKenna,  marine mammal stranding apprentice, discuss the best means of securing a dead pilot whale for transport to Stage Harbor. Kat Szmit Photo

CHATHAM In the foggy hours just after dawn on July 18, a 17-foot pilot whale stranded and died in the sandbars at the point of Harding's Beach.

The whale was initially spotted by Kelly Chase, a friend of Corbin Ross, BMCS, Officer in Charge at Coast Guard Station Chatham, with news of the stranded creature reaching officials from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the media shortly afterwards.

Misty Niemeyer and Katherine McKenna, IFAW's necropsy coordinator and marine mammal stranding apprentice, helped secure the whale for transport by Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith and his team, which towed it to Old Mill Boatyard in Stage Harbor. It was loaded onto a flatbed truck to be taken to Woods Hole for a necropsy, planned for sometime Tuesday.

“Mass strandings of pilot whales are well documented on the bay side of Cape Cod,” IFAW Stranding Coordinator Kristen Patchett said. “Single strandings are likely due to illness, injury, or age. What brought this particular pilot whale ashore is not yet known.”

Patchett said the necropsy, similar to a human autopsy, will help determine why this particular whale stranded and died.

“The necropsy team will look for clues about the animal’s health before it died, such as overall body condition, presence of parasites, signs of infection or disease process, and whether there are any injuries,” Patchett said via email. Patchett said that results of the necropsy can take weeks or sometimes months to get back. Niemeyer said prior to the whale's removal from the water that a cursory examination revealed it to possibly be an older whale based on the wear of its teeth.

“A single stranding of a pilot whale is not a rare occurrence but not something that happens every day either,” said Patchett. “Pilot whales are well known to use the ocean habitats around Cape Cod and so it is not surprising that occasionally one will strand on one of our beaches.”

Patchett said the most recent stranding prior to this was in April and was a “dead animal in an inaccessible location.”

Patchett added that information from the necropsy allows researchers to learn a great deal about pilot and other whales and sea creatures.

“Collection of data from an animal such as this adds to our collective knowledge of these species and the marine environment,” she said. “We share the information we get from these cases with other marine mammal scientists, stranding organizations and managers. Sometimes what we learn helps inform future responses to strandings as well.”