Dozens of people gathered on the shore of Moriches Bay on Sunday to mourn a humpback whale that was euthanized earlier in the week after it had been stranded on a sandbar.
“It’s an emotional day, but this is what makes me proud to be a New Yorker, a Long Islander, seeing so many people care,” said Vincent Conwell, 32, of Patchogue.
The 33-foot-long humpback whale was first seen stranded on a sandbar Nov. 20 and it remained grounded in the shallow water for four days before it was euthanized by veterinarians, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said.
Conwell, a surf fisherman, constructed a large blue cross with “RIP” and “Long Island Cares” painted in white across the structure.
People took turns writing messages on the cross: “You brought joy to us and we loved you,” one woman wrote. “We are so very sorry,” another note read.
Others tossed carnations into the bay near the Moriches Coast Guard station.
The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, a nonprofit that often rehabilitates marine mammals and sea turtles, had attempted unsuccessfully to help the animal dislodge itself the day it was found by using a boat to create waves nearby.
By the time the whale was assessed Tuesday, it had suffered significant cardiovascular injury and also exhibited signs of neurological damage, making euthanasia the most humane option, according to veterinarian Craig Harms, head of North Carolina State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, who examined the whale.
But several community members at the vigil criticized the decision to euthanize the whale and many expressed outrage that federal agencies didn’t do more to try and free it.
“It’s very sad. Now all we can do is say goodbye the right way,” said Heather Lefort, 43, of Manorville, while holding a bouquet of flowers.
Lefort was one of several locals who was aboard a barge equipped with an excavator that floated near the whale last week. The group of private citizens were hoping to dig a hole next to the whale in order to help the animal free itself, but were prohibited by officials from doing so because of concerns the whale would fall into the hole and suffocate.
Last week, an online petition was created calling on lawmakers to allow local authorities or private citizens to assist federal agencies in future whale strandings. More than 2,200 people signed the online petition as of Sunday night.
The Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Long Island-based environmental group, also has urged officials to create a “whale rescue task force” comprised of local agencies.
“We need to make sure something’s done so that this doesn’t happen again,” said Adrienne Esposito, the organization’s executive director.