Humpback whale found dead on Fernandina Beach

Officials to conduct necropsy to determine cause of death

By Crystal Moyer - Traffic/reporter, David Benfield - Web producer

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. - A humpback whale was found dead Sunday on Fernandina Beach. 

The not fully-grown whale, estimated to be about 30 feet long and weighing more than 5,000 pounds, washed ashore, which sparked concern from both biologists and beach visitors. 

"It kind of blows you away because it's a teenager," Diana McKeever, who was visiting from New York, told News4Jax on Monday. 

Word spread quickly and hundreds of people showed up to take a look at the discovery.

"I was, like, 'Mom, can we go to the beach to see the whale?' When we got here, we were really amazed because it was really big," Morgan Ott said. "It's really cool how thick the blubber is."

Marine and wildlife crews spent Monday trying to find out why the humpback whale died. Before the whale was buried deep under the sand on Monday, samples were collected so that a necropsy, which is similar to an autopsy, can be performed to determine the cause of death. 

"There's been an unusually high number of humpback whales that have been dying off of the East Coast," said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Officer Claire Surrey-Marsden. "So, we're going to be doing a lot of sampling."

Surrey-Marsden said the samples they collected will help determine the cause of death, whether it be human interaction or some type of illness. She said the visible wounds were likely caused after the whale died. 

"Those are external signs of scavenging from large predators, like sharks, which is pretty common," Surrey-Marsden said. 

OCEARCH Expedition Leader, Chris Fischer, says white sharks were feeding off the carcass.

Fisher, who founded the shark tagging research team headquartered at JU, focused his shark tagging expedition close to Fernandina Beach.

He said no sharks have been sited during the 20 days at sea between South Carolina and Ponce Inlet, Fl due to the abnormally cold water.

Many of the visitors expressed concern when they found out the whale was buried right on the beach. 

It could take months, even years, for the whale's body to decompose under the sand, but Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said there are no health or safety risks for people who want to come out to the beach. 

NOAA said there were other, more expensive options, such as hauling it to the dump or sinking it out in the ocean.

"Normally, those animals just end up on the beach sometime later," Surrey-Marsden said. 

Although the whale's death showed the sad side of nature, it was also a learning experience for both scientists and spectators. 

"We have to write a paragraph about it," Abigail Purvis said. "So I started taking pictures."

As a reminder, anyone who sees a beached whale or dolphin is asked to immediately call FWC or 1-877-WHALE-HELP. People may do more harm than good if they try to push it back into the water on their own.

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