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'Emaciated' humpback found in Southampton surf, necropsied, buried officials say

A female humpback whale spotted in the surf

A female humpback whale spotted in the surf in Southampton has been necropsied and buried, officials said. Credit: Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

Now there are 13: An "emaciated" female humpback spotted in the surf in Southampton has been necropsied and buried, officials said, adding a pathologist will test samples to determine why it died.

She is the 13th large whale — and seventh humpback — the nonprofit Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, in a statement, said it had responded to in this year alone.

Her length — 27-1/2 feet — suggests she was a juvenile; while blue whales are the world's largest, experts say humpbacks can grow as long as 60 feet and their flippers can be at least 15 feet long.

Experts said they believe this humpback was seen this summer in the New York Bight; humpbacks can be identified by their dorsal fins or flukes, both of which are distinctive. 

Boat strikes and fishing nets or lobster pots anchored with vertical lines are among the leading causes of their deaths — and those of other whales, dolphins, porpoises and sea turtles, researchers say. 

Humpbacks are known for their complex songs and ability to delight whale watchers with spectacular breaches. "They are more of a charismatic animal," said Rob DiGiovanni, the Hampton Bays-based Atlantic Marine Conservation Society's chief scientist, contrasting them with other whales he studies.

"If there is a group of whales, if you think about it as being at an event, they are probably the speaker, as opposed to the person sitting in the back," he said by telephone. In contrast, other whales also seen in New York waters keep to themselves more. "Fin whales you will see swimming around; you're not going to see them breach, the Minke is a little more in the background" too, said DiGiovanni, who conducted the necropsy. 

Though humpbacks are safeguarded under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared they were suffering from an "unusual mortality event" in 2016. The term signifies "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response," the agency said.

Humpbacks and other whales increasingly are swimming closer to the coast, experts say, possibly chasing bait fish that are thriving because the ocean is less polluted.

Yet this heightens the dangers they face. They concentrate on their prey when feeding, which all too often are in the same lanes as tankers, experts say. And possibly imperiled by whale watchers who either allow whales to grow too accustomed to their presence or violate regulations limiting how close they can get.

"The resurgence of whale sightings in the New York Bight has been coupled with the increase in large whale strandings from the rare occurrence every few years to on average one a month in the last two years," the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society says on its website.

Since 2016, 105 of these leviathans have stranded along 13 East Coast states, NOAA says. That is about eight times more than the 2014 total of strandings from Florida to Maine.

New York's total of 21 is the highest, it says. The population of the humpbacks seen off the Atlantic coast — they breed in the Caribbean's West Indies — was estimated at 896 in 2015, NOAA says. 

The young female humpback was reported to the nonprofit by a person who saw it in the Atlantic on Thursday morning by Halsey Neck Lane, it said.

"The animal was emaciated and there were no significant findings," it said in a statement on Thursday evening. The analysis of the tissue and other samples will take months.

Like countless other species, humpbacks must pack on the weight to make it through winter. 

"The fact that this animal is really skinny at this time of year ... implies the animal was kind of sick over a long period," instead of suffering from an acute or swift problem, DiGiovanni said. Its stomach was empty. 

The kind of damage ships and fishing gear inflict was not apparent. "We didn't see ... the bruising or hemorrhage or things like [that]," the scientist said. "'What we really had was an animal like a kid in a playground — they're going to have cuts and scrapes and things like that ... but you're not necessarily seeing anything in these scrapes that is super-infected."

The number of whales and sea turtles that have stranded so far this year is running around last year's pace, according to the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. The 2019 roster, for example, includes four Minke whales, one right whale, 21 Loggerhead sea turtles, four each of the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle and the green sea turtle, and five Leatherback sea turtles.

Anyone who sees a distressed sea creature is asked to call the state Stranding Hotline at 631-369-9829. "If you’re out on the water in this area, please keep a close lookout for whales, and remember to give them plenty of room," the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society advises.

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