Lynda Doughty was surprised when one of the ocean’s rarest and least understood whale species washed ashore in York last month, and even more astonished when another subspecies of the whale was stranded in Phippsburg just a few weeks later. 

These whales, known as beaked whales for their long, beaked dolphin-like nose, are so elusive that there have been just four beaked whales documented in Maine waters in the past 20 years.

Sadly, the whale in York, a 14-foot, 2,200 pound Blainville’s beaked whale, was found deceased. The necropsy revealed she had recently given birth to a calf, but Doughty, director and founding member of Bath-based Marine Mammals of Maine, could not find any immediate cause of death. 

The whale in Phippsburg, a 1,700 pound female Sowerby’s beaked whale, was found stranded in a mudflat during low tide in Atkins Bay near Popham Beach on Saturday.

Lynda Doughty from Marine Mammals of Maine (left) and team members lift a 1,700 pound Sowerby’s beaked whale into the water last Saturday. Though they initially hoped for a positive outcome, the whale later died. Courtesy of Marine Mammals of Maine

Doughty’s team used stretchers and the tide to get the whale back in the water. However, despite no obvious signs of injury or illness, she was later found deceased and no cause of death has been identified. 

Doughty doesn’t know what happened to the animals, or how they got to Maine, but she does know that they should not have been here. 

“The fact that a beaked whale is in a coastal area is an alarm,” she said. “There’s a lot unknown about their general habitat use, but they should not be in coastal waters.”

Beaked whales are deep-water cetations (whales, dolphins, porpoises) that swim in deepwater canyons and continental slopes and can dive for up to 45 minutes and to depths of nearly 5,000 feet, depending on the species. They use suction to feed on deep-sea fish and squid while they dive.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sowerby’s beaked whales, sometimes known as the “North Atlantic beaked whale” prefer the deep, cold, temperate and subarctic waters throughout the North Atlantic Ocean, while Blainville’s beaked whales, or the “dense-beaked whale” prefer tropical to temperate waters. The species lack distinguishable characteristics and can, therefore, be difficult to differentiate — Doughty said it took substantial research to identify the minute differences in skeletal structure, beak arc, color and flipper size to land on Sowerby’s and Blainville’s whales. The whole family is generally characterized as “cryptic” and “skittish,” according to NOAA. 

There are 22 known species of beaked whales, but sightings are so infrequent that very little is known about their numbers, lifespans, or habits. 

“They’re amazing animals,” said Rosemary Seton, marine mammal stranding coordinator at College of the Atlantic. Her organization responds to strandings from Rockland to Canada, whereas Marine Mammals of Maine responds to strandings from Rockland to Kittery. 

Seton said there have not been any reported sightings of beaked whales in her area since the 1980s — a True’s beaked whale whose skeleton is on display at the college. 

“That they had four in 20 years is amazing,” she said. “They’re a bit mysterious.”

There are numerous reasons a whale can become stranded, including illness, “acoustic trauma” from human noise and the use of sonar, old age and more. 

But “usually something is amiss,” she said. 

Doughty said the whale skeletons will be donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to help scientists better understand the mysterious creatures. 

“Anything we can do to gain more knowledge of (beaked whales) is helpful, and can provide future data and information,” and help track evolutionary changes, she said. 

“It just goes to show … as much as we study our oceans, there’s still a lot to learn,” she said. “It makes you realize how big our ocean really is.” 

Marine Mammals of Maine responds to about 300 reports of animal strandings per year — 90% of which are seals, and the remainder of which are dolphins, whales and porpoises, Daughty said. Stranded animals like whales, which cannot live outside of the water like seals can, are always an emergency situation, she said, but it is important not to try to move the animal back into the water. 

“The longer that animal is out of the water, the more stress and impact (there is), but because they’re not righted in their normal position, the weight can be detrimental to them internally,” she said. Plus, because the animal does not know a person is there to help, they may try to protect themselves, which could be dangerous. 

To report a stranded animal call the Marine Mammals of Maine hotline at 1-800-532-9551.


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