MMR responds to rare Sowerby’s Beaked Whale that strands on Gloucester beach

Posted on May 23, 2023

Seacoast Science Center teams up with NOAA Fisheries to learn more about this mysterious species

All photos were taken by Seacoast Science Center under its marine mammal stranding agreement with NOAA Fisheries.

On Thursday morning, May 18, 2023, Seacoast Science Center (SSC) Marine Mammal Rescue (MMR) staff and NOAA Fisheries received reports from beachgoers about a live-stranded Sowerby’s beaked whale on Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester, MA. In a coordinated effort, initial responders quickly arrived on scene to assess the animal, which was noted to be generally lethargic while thrashing occasionally.

The animal was located in knee-deep water on an intertidal sandbar, and the tide was beginning to recede. It is highly unusual for beaked whales to become stranded as they inhabit the deep-waters off the continental shelf edge of the North Atlantic Ocean. Knowing the animal was far from its natural habitat, and witnessing its visible declining condition, responders assessed that it would quickly pass. In cases such as this, attempting to re-float a struggling marine mammal can actually cause the animal additional harm and suffering.

Initial responders were instructed to keep a safe distance away from the struggling animal for the safety of all involved. Unfortunately, the animal expired, going into ‘death throes’ before a full responding team including SSC, NOAA Fisheries, Massachusetts Environmental Police, and the City of Gloucester Animal Control and Department of Public Works arrived on-site.

Seacoast Science Center Marine Mammal Rescue, NOAA Fisheries, Massachusetts Environmental Police, and the City of Gloucester Animal Control and Department of Public Works work to collect data from a rare Sowerby’s beaked whale that stranded on a Gloucester beach. 

In a collaborative effort, photos and initial data were collected, and the animal was removed from the beach. A full necropsy exam which was performed on May 19th by the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory at University of New Hampshire, the lab which MMR contracts with for post mortem examinations.

Preliminary findings confirmed no evidence of human interaction or trauma, no significant external signs of injury, and relatively good body condition. The animal was found to have a minor parasite load in its lungs and gastrointestinal tract, and no food in its stomach or intestines. One significant finding was that the animal’s brain exhibited congested meninges, which could indicate either Nasitrema (a parasite) or other encephalitis (swelling of the brain).

 Sowerby’s Beaked Whale that stranded on a Gloucester beach being moved with heavy equipment.
Data collected from the Sowerby’s beaked whale that stranded on a Gloucester beach on May 18th will be used to help further our understanding of these rarely-seen marine mammals. 

Full histopathology results from this necropsy can take a few months to complete. Final results will be posted on the Seacoast Science Center Marine Mammal Rescue Facebook page and website blog once received. Following the necropsy the beaked whale was buried on the beach. The animal’s skull, along with additional samples, are being sent to the Smithsonian Institution and will become part of their curated collection.

Beaked whales are little-understood, deep-sea marine mammals. This animal was identified as a sub-adult, female Sowerby’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon bidens) weighing an estimated 788kgs (1,733 lbs.) and 13.8 feet in length. Sowerby’s Beaked Whales generally prefer the cold, deep waters of the North Atlantic, diving for extended periods of time (10-28 minutes) in search of small fish. Little is known about these marine mammals due to their cryptic nature, and difficulty to research.

Photograph of Sowerby’s beaked whale that stranded on a Gloucester beach on May 18, 2023.
Sowerby’s beaked whales have a small- to medium-sized body with a very long, slender beak relative to other beaked whales, as well as a bulge on the forehead area.

Although this situation resulted in an unfortunate outcome, responding teams were able to facilitate the collection of valuable scientific information that will help to advance our understanding of these amazing ocean animals.

All reporting parties acted responsibly by immediately reporting this animal to authorized organizations, and keeping a safe distance away from the animal. All whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals are also protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes touching, feeding, or any other form of interference with these animals federally illegal.

Special thanks goes to all of the organizations who helped in this response, including NOAA Fisheries, Gloucester DPW, Massachusetts Environmental Police, University of New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostics Lab, Gloucester Animal Control, and IFAW. As we often say, it takes a village, and we’re thankful to all who gave their time and effort to make this response successful.

SSC’s Marine Mammal Rescue team staffs a 24/7 hotline and responds to all reports of marine mammals that haul out or strand on the shore in New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts (from Essex, MA to the Maine border). This work helps to advance wildlife conservation through stranded marine mammal response, care, data collection, and community outreach in New Hampshire and Northeastern Massachusetts. To report a stranded animal in this area, please keep a safe distance of 150 feet away and contact the rescue hotline at 603-997-9448.

Seacoast Science Center relies on support from the community to operate its Marine Mammal Rescue program. To learn more about Seacoast Science Center and how you can help, click here.

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Seacoast Science Center will be CLOSED today: Friday, April 5, 2024. Our utilities are currently down and need to get repaired before we are able to open for visitors. Thank you for your understanding. 

CLOSED today.

Seacoast Science Center is closed today due to inclement weather.