The Perfect Storm Behind the String of Dead Whales Washing Up in Virginia 

click to enlarge Charles Potter of the Smithsonian studies the baleen of a juvenile humpback whale during a necropsy at Craney Island in Portsmouth on Feb. 3, 2017.

The' N. Pham

Charles Potter of the Smithsonian studies the baleen of a juvenile humpback whale during a necropsy at Craney Island in Portsmouth on Feb. 3, 2017.

They were gruesome sights.

Whales lifeless and bloated on the beach, two of them with giant gashes along their bodies, entrails spilled out onto the sand.

Even more troublesome: The scene repeated three times here in less than two weeks.

So what's the deal?

The explanation seems to be a relatively simple, and sad, equation: Experts say more whales feeding around the shipping channel leading into the Chesapeake Bay plus lots of ships heading in and out each week equals more dead whales.

Think throwing a bunch of candy onto Interstate 264 and telling your kids to go feast.

Necropsy reports so far have failed to reach any other conclusion. Propeller strikes and collision with vessels are the most likely culprits. All three whales otherwise appeared to be healthy.

"I think that's the most plausible reason why we're having so many deaths this year," said Charlie Potter, a whale expert with the Smithsonian Museum who helped with the first necropsy. "The whales weren't hanging around the channel last year and we didn't have this situation."

The first whale showed up on the rocks of the south island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and was towed to the shore at Craney Island. Days later, a second washed up on the Bay side of the Eastern Shore just north of Kiptopeke State Park. And last weekend another whale washed up in Virginia Beach at 80th Street.

Whale biologists said this group of young humpbacks likely stopped at the mouth of the Bay to feed during a southerly migration and liked the food source – menhaden, small fish that abound here – and the deeper waters of the channel.

"They're not going to leave food to look for food, and these young whales have no reason to see the ships as a danger," said Alex Costidis, coordinator for the Virginia Aquarium's Stranding Response Program, who has helped with the three necropsies. "They're preoccupied with eating and there is lots to eat.

"And it's a busy port."

According to authorities at the Port of Virginia, an average of 40 large container ships enter the port each week.

"Then you have just as many or more heading to Baltimore," said Joe Harris, port spokesman. "Add coal ships going to Newport News and Norfolk, and the Navy ... you've probably got more than 100 ships coming into the port each week.

"It's really unfortunate, but there is a lot of traffic in this area, and that's not a good place for the whales to be."

Humpbacks are baleen whales, meaning they filter food through long bristles. It also means they don't have the echolocation capabilities toothed whales do. They're very slow swimmers. And the pod that's currently wintering along our coast has grown accustomed to the sound of ship traffic, so the whales don't see the vessels as a danger until it's too late.

Another factor could be that as these ships approach, all of their noise and vibration is on the sides, bottom and rear. When met head on, they appear silent. "A dead zone," said marine biologist Kristin Rayfield.

A whale in the midst of a menhaden feeding frenzy wouldn't know what hit it.

And the ship captains likely wouldn't know that they'd hit anything because of an overwhelming mismatch in size. While the three whales killed to date each have measured around 30 feet long and weighed an approximate 10,000 pounds, big container ships can measure up to 900 feet long and weigh – when loaded – several hundreds of thousands of pounds.

It all adds up to a likelihood that more whales will be struck and killed in the coming days or weeks. Costidis said the stranding team already is monitoring another whale with obvious prop marks on its body.

And the current visitors probably won't be heading north any time soon.

"They can hang around here well into April," Costsidis said. "Bait and water temperatures will determine when they leave."

Schools of menhaden swarm coastal waters year-round, and predicting when waters will warm is akin to trying to win the lottery.

Which leaves the question: Can anything be done?

"Hope and prayer won't hurt," Potter said. "Nobody's really sure of any answers. I don't know what the answer is."

The Coast Guard broadcasts warnings to mariners to slow down and be aware when whales are in the area, but that's usually only for endangered species such as the northern right whale. Humpbacks have made a remarkable comeback after centuries of commercial harvesting that lowered their number to approximately 700 in the 1960s. The International Whaling Commission listed humpbacks as endangered in 1986, vulnerable in 1990 and as a "least concern" in 2008 because the population had grown to more than 80,000 worldwide.

The Chesapeake Bay whales appear to be a pack of juveniles between 2 and 3 years old, according to Costidis. Humpbacks don't reach breeding age until they are between 6 and 10. Adults, who spend their winters in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, can grow up to 50 feet and weigh 25 to 40 tons. They can live up to 50 years.

"The good news is that there are a lot of these young whales out there, so this doesn't really impact the population," Potter said. "And these are young males and not breeding stock females, so that doesn't hurt the future.

"Yes, this is sad and we don't want to see any dead whales. But the fact that so many juveniles are migrating up and down the coast is encouraging."

He just wishes they'd stop looking for candy on a busy highway.

This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com.


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