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Mid-Atlantic Humpback Whale Deaths Cause Concern
March 12, 2019

Update - 3/21/19: Another humpback whale has been found dead on the beach in Corolla, NC - the fourth humpback found dead in that region in the past eight weeks. The whale was found on Whalehead Beach on Sunday, March 17th and was a 27.5 foot female humpback estimated to only be about two years old. WTRK reported that the whale exhibited injuries that hinted she had become entangled in netting. Any deaths are concerning but a significant rise in the amount of deaths - especially in a short time in a relatively small area - is very concerning for humpback whales and for all other whales who reside in or travel through the area such as North Atlantic right whales.

humpback whale found dead on the beach in corolla, north carolina on february 17th, 2019

This 33.5 foot juvenile humpback whale was found dead on the beach in Corolla, North Carolina on February 17, 2019. The necropsy revealed that the whale had been struck by a ship.
credit: Corolla Beach Rescue

The finding of three dead humpback whales within a week in North Carolina and Virginia is concerning - for humpback whales and for all other whales species that reside in and travel through those waters, including the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. The first of the three, a 38 foot long humpback, was found on February 12th north of Oregon Inlet in North Carolina. Just days later, TV station WTKR reported that a 33.5 foot juvenile humpback was found dead on the beach in Corolla, NC by a Currituck County Sheriff's deputy just after midnight on February 16th, technically making the discovery on the 17th. Another humpback was found dead a bit further north in the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Sandbridge, Virginia, also on February 17th.

The humpback found near Oregon Inlet and the one found in Virginia were too decomposed to find a cause of death but during the necropsy of the whale found in Corolla, NC the crew found 'extensive hemorrhaging near the back of the whale's head under the skin' meaning the whale was struck by a ship. In addition to the humpback deaths, the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network reported on February 13th that a dead Blainville's beaked whale washed ashore "on a remote island" near Georgetown, South Carolina. Skin samples were taken and the skull of the whale was collected for research but the whale was badly decomposed and as of yet, no cause of death has been determined. A dwarf sperm whale was also found dead in Nags Head, NC a couple weeks before the humpback was found dead in Corolla, NC but had parasites and is 'considered part of the typical annual mortality', according to Karen Clark, director of the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education in Corolla.

The east coast population of humpbacks migrate past the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the spring and in the fall so the area is very important to the species. 'Typically, two or three humpback whales a year wash ashore dead between Ocracoke and Corolla', Clark said. Two by mid-February is very concerning and is part of a larger, disturbing trend of humpback deaths that have been occurring over the past few years. In the last three years, 84 humpback whales have died along the east coast, an average of 28 per year - more than twice as high as the average of about 12 known deaths per year between 2011 and 2016. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared the deaths an Unusual Mortality Event in 2017 which frees up more funding to investigate the deaths. Eleven of the whales were found dead in North Carolina and 14 were found dead in Virginia with 17 found in New York - the most of any state. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing rope or nets caused about half the deaths.

The population fell by 95 percent until a 1985 moratorium on whaling helped the population recover but now, like all other whale species, face a multitude of threats including ship strikes, entanglement in fishing rope and nets, chemical pollution, plastic pollution, noise pollution and even illegal hunting at times. The population that resides in the western Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of the US is no longer classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act but is still protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act throughout its range. Many species of whales are affected by the same threats such as ship strikes and entanglements so it's important to find the exact cause of new problems as they emerge, such as a significant rise in deaths, and implement the solutions to those problems - for the sake of all species of whales.


4 dead whales have washed up in the past 2 weeks, concerning scientists - The Virginian-Pilot

Something’s killing humpback whales near the Outer Banks. Three are beached in one week. - Richmond Times-Dispatch

Something’s killing humpback whales near the Outer Banks. Three are beached in 5 days - Miami Herald

To find out more about what is happening to North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales and how we can all take actions in our everyday lives to protect them, please visit our Facts and Action sections on our website. We also post updates and pictures on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.