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Humpback found dead on East Quogue beach was a celebrity whale

Undated photo of the whale Istar leaping out

Undated photo of the whale Istar leaping out of the water. The whale washed up on the beach in East Quogue. (April 17, 2013) Credit: Center for Coastal Studies

They called her Istar.

The humpback whale that washed up dead on an East Quogue beach last week was well known to scientists and the whale community as a fertile mother tracked since 1976, researchers said this week.

Istar, named after Ishtar, an ancient Babylonian fertility goddess, mothered at least 11 calves, including two in consecutive years, 1988 and 1989, something previously undocumented, said Jooke Robbins, senior scientist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

"I won't lie, it's not really easy," Robbins said. "Istar is just an individual known for so long, as such a productive whale. She's a big favorite for so many people."

Istar was at least 41 years old, measured at 48 feet long and was estimated to weigh 30 to 35 tons, researchers said.

While her cause of death is still under investigation, the whale had massive cranial damage consistent with a ship strike, said Kimberly Durham, rescue program director of the Riverhead Foundation, which performed the necropsy.

But the results so far are not conclusive, she said, because of the possible effects of the daylong effort of hauling the whale out of the water. The task was performed on April 18 by a contractor, hired by the Southampton Town trustees, who used an excavator to roll the whale up out of the surf.

The results of forensic tests won't come back until June or July, Durham said.

Istar, number 0080 in the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog, was among the first 120 whales documented with a then-new technique that used distinctive markings on the whale's tail fins, called flukes, in 1977.

"It was an animal we've known," said Rosemary Seton, research associate with the marine mammal laboratory Allied Whale at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, which maintains the whale catalog. "It was one of our pioneering humpbacks."

Istar had no electronic tracking device. But her annual migration from her feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine, where she would spend April through December, to her wintering grounds in the Caribbean were tracked by scientists and whale enthusiasts through the markings on her flukes.

She was likely returning to the Gulf of Maine when she died, Robbins said.

Istar was the mother of Cloud, born in 1977, the first humpback whale that has been tracked since birth by the Allied Whale lab. She was also the mother of Scylla, another female who also has had 11 calves.

Durham said she has done a number of whale necropsies on Long Island, but never has she seen an outpouring from the whale community as she has with Istar.

"It's like a celebrity in the whale world has passed," she said. After sending a photograph of the underside of the flukes to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, she got an email back almost instantly: It was Istar.

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