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Mystery Grows as Another Dead Whale Washes Up on East Coast

Newsweek 3/27/2023 Robyn White
A stock photo shows a whale washed ashore on a beach. A pygmy sperm whale was found washed ashore on a Maryland beach. © Cavan Images/Getty A stock photo shows a whale washed ashore on a beach. A pygmy sperm whale was found washed ashore on a Maryland beach.

A decomposing pygmy sperm whale has washed ashore on a New Jersey beach.

The 9-foot whale was found on 49th Street beach in Ocean City, and was in such a state of decomposition that it was nearly impossible to tell what it was.

This is the latest whale to wash ashore along the New Jersey coast in recent months. This area is seeing an unusually high number of marine mammal strandings.

At least 29 dead whales have stranded along this coastline since December 2022. Most of these have occurred on the coast of New York and New Jersey.

Sheila Dean, executive director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, told OCNJ Daily that this particular sperm whale has been dead for "a long time." The carcass was mostly skeleton with "some skin on it."

Due to its state, scientists would struggle to undertake a necropsy to find out how it died. The body was buried on the beach.

There has been an "unusual mortality event" happening in the area since 2016, according to NOAA Fisheries.

Large whales have been washing ashore more frequently ever since, particularly humpback whales.

There have been nearly 200 humpback whales involved in this unusual mortality event, 40 percent of which displayed signs of injury from humans, in the form of either a ship strike or fishing line entanglement. For the rest, scientists say more research is needed.

Dolphins have also been found washed ashore in recent months.

Olaf Meynecke, environmental and marine researcher and a research fellow at the Coastal and Marine Research Centre at Griffith University in Australia, told Newsweek: "Whale strandings are more likely when unwell marine mammals enter coastal waters. The majority of marine mammals do not strand if unwell, but remain at sea. Wind and current can increase the likelihood of whales being stranded, as well the morphology of the coastline. Depending on the species food shortage and starvation, as well as plastic ingestion, entanglements in fishing gear can cause strandings."

Pygmy sperm whales are a relatively rare species. Pygmy sperm whales live in waters worldwide, but in the U.S. they are found off the coast of Hawaii, the northern Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, and the North Atlantic. Most strandings of this species have occurred off the southeastern coasts, meaning they may be more widely distributed here. But the species is rarely seen, meaning this is uncertain. The population in the western North Atlantic is thought to be around 7,750.


The recent rise in East Coast whale strandings has sparked debate over offshore wind operations taking place off the coast of New Jersey.

Environmentalists and some political groups have claimed that offshore wind development in the area could be contributing to the deaths, however there has been no concrete evidence of this.

Meynecke said, however, that underwater noise and disruption can cause trouble for marine mammals.

"Exposure to underwater noise can cause disorientation in particular for dolphins. Various studies have shown a relationship between dolphin strandings and sound interfering with their sonar," he said.

But whales can wash ashore dead for a multitude of reasons. Many species are under threat from fishing net entanglements, vessel strikes and more.

"We must change the way we treat the ocean. It has become a dump for rubbish, unregulated resource extraction at high seas and climate change shifting ocean dynamics," Meynecke said. "Our ocean and with it marine mammals need better protection. There are many things we can do on a personal level such as changing our own habits but also supporting increased marine protection."

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