Why 23 Dead Whales Have Washed Up on the East Coast Since December

The humpback whale found on February 13 in Manasquan, New Jersey, had been seen feeding about a month earlier in Raritan Bay, 30 miles from where it came ashore.

Sheila Dean’s phone at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey, rang that day, as it often does when dead whales turn up. It had been an exceptionally busy few weeks for Ms. Dean, who joined the center in 1978 after years working as a sea lion and dolphin trainer at Atlantic City’s famous Steel Pier.

She and a team of 10 volunteers washed up on the beach the next morning and found a whale known by its markings as NYC0298.

There is no way to X-ray a creature as large as a school bus on the beach, so researchers search for lesions by hand, removing thick layers of fat and inserting up to a foot into the body cavity to look for parasites, scars, or bruises, a telltale sign of a ship collision. The work is exhausting and the smell is disgusting.

“Our job is to find out what is killing them,” Ms Dean said.

On February 17, another volunteer necropsy team was called to the Rockaways, in Queens, to investigate the death of the minke found with deep propeller cuts on the side.

Also in attendance was Harry Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug Nation, a Long Island Native American tribe. He conducted a burial service after the whale hounds finished their work.

After the prayer, a front loader pushed the minke into a deep hole on the beach and covered the carcass with sand, the method used to dispose of most stranded whales. The animals are buried deep enough to avoid the stench; over time, more sand is often needed to fill in the gap as the whale decomposes and the grave settles.