Last changed: April 01. 2003 12:00AM
UNCW helps retrieval for Smithsonian's collection
By Gareth McGrath
gareth.mcgrath at wilmingtonstar.com
CAROLINA BEACH - The stench from the decomposed mammal half-buried on the
north end of Carolina Beach was strong enough Monday to attract a pair of
wandering dogs and several curious sea gulls.
But the pungent smell did little to distract officials from the Smithsonian
Institution who had trekked south from Washington to collect the whale
carcass that washed ashore nearly three weeks ago.
"This really is a wonderful opportunity to get to know about an animal we
know very little about," said Charley Potter, the Smithsonian's collection
manager for marine mammals. "And to have a nice, fresh specimen like this
where we were able to observe it quickly and harvest tissue samples is a
Joined by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington
and a backhoe from Carolina Beach, the small group began unearthing the head
and flippers of the whale around 8:30 a.m.
Its body was buried in two other piles a few hundred feet away.
"The skull, for species identification, is the most important part, so
that's why we buried it over here, a little out of the way," said Ann
Pabst, a UNCW marine biologist, when asked why the whale's head and flippers
had been buried back in the dunes.
When the whale was first spotted on the beach that unusually warm March 13
morning, the carcass quickly drew a crowd.
But on this blustery day, with a wind-chill factor in the 30s, there were no
Even if it had been warmer, the smell probably would have quickly driven
"We're talking about some ripe fish here," joked Carolina Beach equipment
operator James Banks, who suddenly found himself downwind as he maneuvered
his backhoe to drop the whale's 8-foot head and upper jaw into the trailer.
Researchers had initially classified the 36-foot mammal as a Sei whale, a
deep-ocean whale rarely spotted off the Carolina Coast.
But Dr. Pabst said researchers now think the carcass is that of a Bryde's
whale, a mammal that normally sticks to tropical and subtropical waters.
Even in those waters, the whale is a rare sight. A 1995 survey by the
National Marine Fisheries Service of the northern Gulf of Mexico the
closest known large population group to North Carolina recorded no
sightings of Bryde's whales.
"It's neat to see a species we probably won't see again in our lifetimes,"
said Dr. Pabst, armed with a shovel as she prepared to jump back into the
pit and help unearth the whale's head. "It just doesn't happen very often
these days that you don't know what you have, so that's kind of exciting.
She added that results from tissue sampling, which would confirm the whale's
species, should be back by the end of April.
The initial explanation for the animal's death, a fishing line wrapped
around its mouth that slowly starved the whale to death, remains
"There's nothing that we've learned that would make us back away from that,"
Dr. Pabst said.
The line had been attached to the whale for so long that the emaciated
animal's skin had begun to grow around where the fishing gear had gouged
into its head.
After a few swipes with the backhoe and carefully removing the flippers, the
small team maneuvered around the whale's skull.
The blue tarp that covered the head was then pulled back and that's when
the smell went from mildly annoying to almost nauseating.
Mr. Potter, seemingly immune to the stench, said the skeleton could be the
first Bryde's whale specimen added to the museum's collection in about a
"We just don't know a lot about these animals at all," he said.
Mr. Potter said the skeleton along with the tissue and organ samples taken
earlier could offer researchers a wealth of data to compare and contrast
with known information about the species, much of which comes from animals
caught by whalers nearly a century ago.
But Dr. Pabst said more than just biological information can be learned from
the dead whale. "This shows that anything we put in the water can end up in
a whale's mouth," she said.
After being sliced and then buried on the beach, officials said the whale
isn't headed for a much more restful time in suburban Maryland, where the
Smithsonian stores its marine mammal collection.
The carcass will be dunked in a tub of compost primarily horse manure to
help with the removal of skin, muscle and tissue from the bones. After a few
months, the bones will be removed from the compost for a final cleaning
before being cataloged and stored.
Mr. Potter said the specimen would then be available as a resource for
researchers nationally and worldwide.
Gareth McGrath: 343-2384
gareth.mcgrath at wilmingtonstar.com