BAR HARBOR, Maine — Spinnaker may have run out of second chances, having been freed from rope entanglements at least three times during her 11 years of life, but the humpback whale has one more shot at leaving people with something to remember her by.
Researchers began performing a necropsy on Spinnaker’s carcass Monday morning on a local beach to try to determine why she died. The humpback whale washed ashore last week on Mount Desert Island, less than a month after having been disentangled by trained rescuers near Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine.
The humpback whale had been freed from ropes in the ocean at least three times, including twice near Mount Desert Rock — in 2006 and again last September. Researchers say that her two most recent entanglements, only eight months apart, are thought to be the likely culprits in her death, but the necropsy could reveal a different cause.
Spinnaker’s body, about 35 feet long, was towed over the weekend from Great Head in Acadia National Park, where it had washed up against the steep shoreline, to a private beach in the local village of Hulls Cove where her necropsy got under way late Monday morning.
About 30 staffers and volunteers with Allied Whale, the marine mammal research arm of College of the Atlantic, wore boots, hard hats, and overalls or white protective suits Monday as they cut into the carcass with long, curving knives and dragged off pieces with hand-held hooks.
Dan DenDanto, a research associate with Allied Whale and team leader of the necropsy, said Monday that Spinnaker was fairly well known in the whale watching and research community in the Gulf of Maine.
“There are many people in our community who knew this whale and would look forward to seeing it on an annual basis,” he said. “I have some [College of the Atlantic] students that have worked with me, [and Spinnaker] was the first whale they ever saw. Now, to see it end in death like this, is tragic.”
DenDanto, who cleans and rebuilds whale skeletons for museums, said whale necropsies are important because they can reveal information that could lead to more effective conservation measures for whales, which are protected by federal law.
“At the same time, there is an opportunity to understand what transpired with these two recent disentanglements in the last year and how those entanglements may have directly or indirectly contributed the animal’s death,” DenDanto said. “That is our focus today.”
The whale’s carcass gave off a strong smell of rotting flesh on Monday, but the volunteers mentally blocked out the stench to stay focused on the grim task at hand.
As they were cut away, pieces of the whale’s flesh were placed into a large metal container that later will be taken to a commercial seafood compost facility.
The bones were removed and hoisted onto a metal trailer so they could be taken to a separate compost site, where they will be buried for a couple of months, Allied Whale officials said. This will help to remove oil and remaining soft tissues from the bones, which then will be dug up and bleached in the sun. The bones will be kept in storage as part of the collection at College of the Atlantic’s Dorr Museum of Natural History until, at some point, a possible decision is made to reassemble the skeleton.
Rosemary Seton, stranding coordinator for Allied Whale, said Monday that it likely will take some time to process the necropsy’s findings and to make a determination — if any — as to what caused Spinnaker’s death.
“This is a compelling case,” Seton said. “She did have three disentanglements. Did the entanglements cause her death? We don’t know.”
A whale being freed from an entanglement doesn’t mean it has a clean bill of health, she added. Ropes wrapped around a whale can hinder their feeding, breathing and mobility, she said.
“If line cuts through tissue, they can get an infection,” Seton said. “They’re a big animal, but it doesn’t take much.”
Bob Bowman, a whale researcher who disentangled Spinnaker in 2006 off Mount Desert Rock, was at the necropsy Monday as a spectator. He said humpback whales can live for decades and that a “negligible” number don’t have entanglement scars on them. Most whales die and disappear without having a necropsy performed on them, he added.
Getting entangled, and even getting disentangled, can be traumatic experiences for whales that have long-term consequences for their health, he said
“Disentanglement is not an effective conservation measure for whales,” Bowman said.
Jen Meineke, a rising junior at Unity College, was one of the volunteers at Monday’s necropsy. As a wildlife biology student who is studying black bears, she said she has not had much exposure to marine wildlife.
Monday’s experience, she added, has piqued her interest in seeing whales in their natural habitat.
“I had the day off,” she said, explaining why she came to Bar Harbor to help dissect the humpback. “It’s pretty impressive. It would have been nice to see her when she was alive.”