The dead 58-foot finback whale that washed ashore last Thursday at Smith Point County Park in Shirley appears to have been the victim of a vessel strike.
Researchers from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation conducted a necropsy on the whale Friday. With assistance from Suffolk County Parks Department, the researchers rolled the whale over and discovered evidence of bruising on its right side.
Robert DiGiovanni, the foundation’s executive director and senior biologist, said the evidence is indicative of a vessel strike.
“Whether or not other factors contributed is hard to know, because the animal was so decomposed,” he added.
DiGiovanni said the foundation has also sent out samples of the whale for testing, which may reveal more information about its cause of death, but those results can take anywhere from weeks or months to come back.
Based on the level of decomposition, DiGiovanni said the whale appears to have been dead for about two weeks and may be the same one reported floating 30 miles off Jones Beach on Monday, Oct. 6
DiGiovanni said that in the majority of cases the foundation responds to each year, the animals show signs that they have been struck by a vessel. For example, DiGiovanni said on Monday the foundation rescued a loggerhead turtle from the Long Island Sound that was still alive but appeared to have been hit by a vessel. It had also ingested a fishing hook.
Although boaters are urged to report strikes to the proper authorities, DiGiovanni said that in the case of larger vessels, ship operators might not even be aware that of a ship striking an animal.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a page on its website dedicated to reducing ship strikes to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. It provides information about how to report ship strikes and how to reduce these collisions by avoiding known whale habitats and complying with speed restrictions in certain locations.
NOAA also has an iOS app called “Whale Alert” that allows mariners and members of the public to find and share information about whale sightings.
DiGiovanni said increasing public awareness is crucial to protecting whales, dolphins and other sea life.
“Most people don't even know that those animals are out there,” he said. “We're trying to make sure that if there are reportings of healthy animals swimming around, people know about it, so they can steer clear of the area and give them the space they need.”
DiGiovanni encourages anyone who spots marine wildlife on land or in the water to call the foundation’s hotline at 631-369-9829 regardless of whether the animal appears to be dead or alive.
As the temperatures drop, he also said that it’s common during this time of the year for people to find sea turtles on the beach that may appear to be dead, but more than likely, they are cold stunned and in need of medical attention.
“If cold stunning goes unchecked, it can be fatal,” he said. “We rely on the public to help by letting us know what they see.