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Rare Gervais whale startles beachgoers near Bermuda Bay

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of April 25, 2013)
Photo: Gervais whale beached at Bermuda Bay.

A father and his two teens vacationing from Connecticut swam in the surf as the sun set on the beach at Bermuda Bay last Tuesday. A Vero Beach woman walked a Springer spaniel, and a couple from the Estuary headed to the water’s edge for a stroll.

Suddenly, a flip of a huge tail at the edge of the surf threw the six people together in a frenzy of activity – helping an extremely rare whale that had beached itself and was thrashing desperately about at the water’s edge. 

The six people ran to the whale and began trying to push it into the water as its tail slapped in the sand.  The whale – with a bottle nose and a thin smile – resembled a very large dolphin.

A day later, the would-be rescuers would learn it was a beaked Gervais whale – a “very rare offshore species,” said Steve McColluch, founder of the Harbor Branch Marine Mammal Research and Conservation program.

Lining up along its dark gray side, the six people pushed together, heaving and gasping.

Someone splashed water on it with a pail. Some else called for help on a cell phone. Someone snapped a photo.

With the help of the incoming tide, they pushed the whale into several feet of water where – with its dorsal fin steady – the whale started to swim south. 

As it turned out, the whale made it a half mile down the shore, then beached itself again after dark and died within 30 minutes. 

A rescue team from Harbor Branch Oceanic Institute anchored it so a team of marine scientists could arrive to examine it at sunrise.

The Bermuda Bay Gervais turned out to be a male, 14 feet long from the tip of its nose to the tip if its tail, according to the Harbor Branch team and weighed between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds.

Living in pods of two to six whales in water over 4,000 deep, the Gervais whale has so rarely been seen alive in the northern Atlantic that “no current population estimates are available,” said NOAA’s website.  “It is known almost entirely from stranding records.”

Because of turtles nesting in the area, the team couldn’t bring in heavy equipment and remove it, so they performed a necropsy – or animal autopsy – at the site.

Examining the whale, Harbor Branch scientists and veterinarians noted fresh cookie-cutter shark gouges.

Because cookie-cutter sharks – so named because the wounds they inflict are the shape and size of a typical sugar cookie – live in ocean water over a mile deep and the wounds were fresh, the Ocean Branch team surmised that the whale had recently been in very deep water.

But the few cookie-cutter shark gouges had nothing to do with its death, nor did the bloody abrasions on its sides and belly from undulating in the sand.  The team’s preliminary findings listed the whale in “good physical condition,” with no sign of what killed it evident on the outside of its body.

For five hours Wednesday, the team collected organ and tissue samples and examined the whale.  At 2 p.m., a boat towed the whale 15 miles out into water as deep as where it had probably spent most of its life.

Meanwhile, the six people who were at Bermuda Bay beach the day the Gervais came ashore have been in touch, e-mailing and calling one another.

“I wish we had had a better idea of what to do,”lamented Estuary resident Jesus Diaz.

“It was so heart breaking to see that creature dying,” e-mailed Connecticut student Christine Acurantes, 17.  “I hope I never see anything like that again.”

“At least, we tried,” the six people repeat to each other.