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Whale found on Queens beach is dead

Volunteers pour water on a beached whale to

Volunteers pour water on a beached whale to keep it alive in Breezy Point, Dec. 26, 2012. (John Roca) Credit: Volunteers pour water on a beached whale to keep it alive in Breezy Point, Dec. 26, 2012./John Roca

An ailing, 60-foot-long finback whale, found beached on the Breezy Point shores in Queens, died Thursday morning and authorities immediately began planning a necropsy to find a cause of death.

After the procedure -- the marine-biology equivalent of an autopsy -- the carcass will be buried or taken to a landfill, according to Mendy Garron, Northeast stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Excavators, backhoes and dump trucks will be required for the necropsy and disposal of soft tissue, she said. The whale is estimated to weigh 25 to 30 tons.

"Biologists on the scene in the past half-hour confirmed that it has died" and are planning the steps needed to cut into the whale, look at its organs and take numerous biological samples that will be tested for infectious diseases and parasites, said Garron, who is based in Gloucester, Mass.

Investigators arrived at the whale's location after 9 a.m. and saw no breathing in the ensuing hours, indicating the whale had died, she said. It may have been weakened by a chronic illness and had not eaten in a long time, but investigators haven't ruled out the possibility that it was hit by a ship and fatally injured, she said.

One complication is that very little is known about the finback whale species, and scientists have little data on where it typically goes in winter, she said. Intensive study is being conducted to learn where it travels, what it eats and whether the well-being of the species and its food sources have been affected by global climate change, she said.

The whale had been dislodged into Jamaica Bay by Thursday morning's storm-surge high tide but was later found beached again on nearby federal parkland, authorities said.

Earlier Thursday, Garron said biologists learned it "moved a little down the beach, and it's on the National Park Service land, just about 20 yards into the park." Breezy Point Tip and other areas of the Rockaway Peninsula are federal parkland, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Law enforcement officials had been on the scene overnight and lost sight of the whale in the darkness, then found it was gone from New York City's jurisdictional area on the peninsula, she said.

The whale might have been moved by the morning's high tide in Breezy Point, about 6 a.m., which was heightened by a nor'easter's storm surge, Garron said.

On Wednesday, marine biologists said the animal was fighting overwhelming odds.

"The whale is severely emaciated," said biologist Kim Durham, rescue coordinator at the Riverhead Foundation, said Wednesday. "Probably, we'll let nature take its turn with this animal."

She said picking it up would be "inhumane at this point" and fatal, while causing severe pain.

The beached finback, an endangered species, is about 60 feet long and weighs 25 to 30 tons, half the typical weight for a finback of that length, Durham said.

She added that the whale also was bleeding from its tail. The foundation's marine biologists didn't know why, but said it could have cut itself while grinding against the sand or been injured earlier while swimming.

The whale's movements had slowed Wednesday despite efforts to keep it wet and alive by the man who found it while looking for his boat, lost in superstorm Sandy, and by New York City first responders.

"We jumped into the water and started pouring water on him," said Lou Bassolino, 66, of Breezy Point, who brought his family to the beach after finding the mammal washed up. The whale "started to realize we were here. He was huffing, and stuff came from the spout."

Marine biologists said the animal may have a "chronic illness" and had not eaten in a long time.

The whale's ribs are exposed, a sign of serious malnourishment, said Robert DiGiovanni, executive director of the Riverhead Foundation.

It's possible the finback's condition stemmed from being struck by a sea vessel, but that won't be clear unless a necropsy is performed, experts said. "New York Harbor is like a four-lane highway," Durham said.

The whale was first reported at Beach 216th Street and Palmer Place about 10:39 a.m. Wednesday, an NYPD spokeswoman said.

Bassolino, a semiretired real estate investor, said he spotted the whale while driving on the desolate beach, as he does most mornings, looking for his boat. Most homes nearby, including his on Palmer Drive, were uninhabitable after Sandy. He woke his wife and daughters, he said, and they searched on Google for "how to save a whale."

"We've been through so much devastation here," he said, "we just wanted to save something. We wanted to save that whale."

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