A dead humpback whale on Lido Beach on Jan. 31.

A dead humpback whale on Lido Beach on Jan. 31. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

There are lessons to be drawn from the death of a humpback whale stranded on Lido Beach last week.

It's just that the lessons are unsatisfying.

We know that the giant “Luna,” a male that had swum on earth for more than 40 years, is the second humpback whale to strand in New York since the beginning of December. We know that over 170 of its fellow humpbacks have died in similar ways along the East Coast since January 2016, part of what the federal government calls an unusual mortality event. We know that preliminary findings suggest the creature’s cause of death came from a vessel strike. And we will learn more as samples from Luna’s body are tested.

But there is no perfectly definitive answer for why these mammals are dying in large numbers here and now. Scientists offer hypotheses, including changes in vessel traffic and fishing, and shifts in the behavior of whales who follow their prey. Climate change is warming oceans and marine species are voting with their fins, moving to different locations.

There is no evidence that the whale deaths are related to offshore wind development, according to officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries section, the country’s ocean stewards. More research and careful observations are needed as that development takes place, but blaming the deaths on wind is an alarmist jump, especially given the numbers: For this string of dead whales along the East Coast, necropsies have been conducted on approximately half; around 40% of those examined showed evidence of human interaction — either ship strike or entanglement.

Vessel strikes can happen even with small boats. Entanglement is a bitter experience, which can include whales towing fishing gear for miles and slowing down as they get tired and weak. According to one preliminary analysis of drone images from the lab of Lesley Thorne, an associate professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, approximately 80% of humpback whales observed in New York waters have evidence of entanglement scarring.

Even the afterlife of Luna was touched by our changing environment. The whale could not be buried on the Lido Beach shore because of beach erosion there, says Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin. Instead, Clavin said, after consulting with state and federal officials, the whale was buried in the dunes.

The whales provide a lesson on how difficult it is to truly understand the natural world around us. Our limited information about these gentle creatures comes from painstaking survey work, hours and days in boats and planes, building up catalogs of pictures of whales and distinguishing them by scarring and pigmentation patterns, naming them and tracking them over time. There are only so many whales; there is so much sea.

The more we know, the more we can help, appreciating these creatures, trying to aid them, and stopping our human lives from troubling theirs.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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