TREMONT, Maine — A group of scientists and students on Sunday dissected a roughly 6-month-old humpback whale calf that washed up on Little Cranberry Island last week.
Allied Whale, a Bar Harbor-based marine mammal research group affiliated with College of the Atlantic, hoped the necropsy would help them determine what killed the seemingly healthy 18-foot cetacean. The group also extracted and saved the whale’s skeleton, for later articulation and display.
The whale was towed to a boat launch in Trenton before it was lifted onto a flatbed truck and hauled to Dan DenDanto’s farm in Tremont. The carcass had been attached to a mooring off Bar Island since last weekend.
The necropsy started around 7 a.m., and by late morning, the cause of the whale’s demise was still a mystery. A sand dollar had been found in the beast’s esophagus, but the scientists didn’t think it brought down the whale.
“At this point, the cause of death is an unknown,” said Mindy Viechnicki, assistant stranding coordinator for Allied Whale. “It was a young, healthy calf.”
Allied Whale’s scientists were assisted by a group of students from College of the Atlantic and Johns Hopkins University, as well as a group of five summer interns at the research institute.
“It’s an incredible educational opportunity,” Viechnicki said. “This is hands-on learning at its best.”
The 25 or so scientists, students and carvers wore white coveralls as they trudged through the whale’s entrails. DenDanto operated an excavator, pulling on the whale’s body as carvers trimmed flesh from bone and extracted organs for inspection.
The excavator was a new strategy, Viechnicki said. The tension it added to the whale’s body made for easier flensing, and cut the necropsy time considerably.
The scene was as gruesome as the scientists were upbeat. Carvers and observers were cheerful as gallons of blood seeped into a deep pit where entrails, organs and flesh would be buried. The scientists chewed bubblegum and generously applied Vick’s Vaporub to their upper lips and noses to keep the stench of carrion at bay.
“There’s no smell in the world like it,” Viechnicki said. “When you’re in it for days, it just sticks with you, in your sinuses.”
The whale’s bones will be stored in compost for months, where natural processes will clean the skeleton. Then, Viechnicki said, DenDanto — a researcher in the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences — will articulate the skeleton so it can be displayed at a museum or school.
Allied Whale has performed about one large-mammal autopsy per year since it was founded 40 years ago. Viechnicki said that’s about how often whales wash up near Mount Desert Island. The group also has cut the cadavers of countless seals, dolphins and porpoises, she said, though not all of those animals are articulated for display.
The procedure can be emotional, she said, because most of Allied Whale’s scientists, staff and volunteers came to the work because of their love of marine life.
“Having a young animal like this die is not something we like to see,” she said. “That’s why we need to make the most of it.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter @riocarmine.