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Pygmy whale beaches itself, dies

The 9-foot female whale was first spotted in shallow waters about 6 p.m. off Vero Beach.

Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers

By Rachel Harris staff writer
9th March 2003

A pygmy sperm whale died Saturday night after beaching itself near the Holiday Inn on Ocean Drive.

Hundreds of onlookers — many from the nearby Sunset Saturday Night street festival — crowded around the 9-foot female whale, which was first spotted in shallow waters about 6 p.m. For about an hour, the whale tried repeatedly to swim out to deeper waters, but it managed to move only a few hundred yards down the shoreline.

"There was a young guy out there, trying to push it back in, but the waves kept bringing it in," said 30-year-old Shanea Couturier, vacationing from Arizona. She and her nephews, Jordan and Taylor Picchiottino, of Canada, helped keep the whale still until a rescue team from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution could arrive.

"She's barely alive," said Stephen McCulloch, director of the institution's dolphin research program. When he arrived about 7:40 p.m., he found the 1,200-pound whale's underside torn by sand and bleeding. "Her pulse is slow, her eye reflex is still there, but I haven't seen her take a breath."

Typically, pygmy whales take five to seven breaths a minute, he said.

The crowd grew as McCulloch and four others helped keep the whale stable against a rising tide, the waters darkened by blood and a purple ink emitted by the whale, possibly as a defense mechanism. Shortly after 8 p.m., McCulloch declared the whale dead.

"Unfortunately, this isn't uncommon," he said. "We have an individual stranding of a dolphin or a whale every week in Florida. Only about 1 to 2 percent are able to be rescued and re-released into the ocean."

McCulloch could find no apparent signs the whale had been struck by a boat, but said it was probably ill, possibly suffering from a common heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Scientists believe the condition may be caused by a vitamin deficiency, as whales' food sources have become more scarce. Cardiomyopathy can make whales more susceptible to illness and subsequent beaching.

"No whale that is beached is healthy," McCulloch said. "They usually don't come anywhere near shallow waters, so beached whales can be a treasure trove for scientists. These animals are at the top of the food chain so they can be a barometer for the ocean's health."

As about 16 people used an oversized tarp to carry the whale to a nearby parking lot, McCulloch explained how the carcass would be dissected at the Fort Pierce institution, where scientists can determine the cause of death and possible reasons for beachings.

He said residents who spot beached whales should immediately call the Florida Marine Patrol at 1-800-DIAL-FMP. They should avoid pushing the whale back into the water and try to keep it stable until rescue workers can arrive.