#6 A Right Whale Found Dead On Nova Scotia Coast

Team members assess right whale carcass

I was hoping my first blog entry would be about a living whale, but instead I was one of the four team members who responded to a dead right whale report on Friday. Hearing that a right whale has died is always a blow to our community because this species cannot afford to lose a single member. We know many individuals by name, and we have seen many of them grow from birth! However, carcasses are invaluable to our research since detailed examination reveals much about the animal, and often the cause of death. It is critical that we learn the cause of death in order to fully understand the threats this species faces.

Amy and Marianna taking measurements

Early on Friday morning, Moe received news of a right whale carcass on the Nova Scotia coast. Moe, Jerry (NEAq volunteer), Amy and I headed across the Bay of Fundy in Campobello Whale Rescue's Fast Rescue Craft (FRC) inflatable to search for the whale. We caught up with Phil, a Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officer, on a rocky coastline where the 43 foot male whale was found. We needed to relocate the significantly decomposed carcass to a beach with accessible roads in order to conduct a proper necropsy. The whale was towed to an ideal location, a large sandy beach only a mile away. Unfortunately for us, this large sandy beach was also ideal for weekend beach goers. To appease residents' understandable concern, DFO hired Mr. Stanton, a local fisherman, to help tow the carcass another 10 miles away.

Moe and the FRC with whale in tow

Mr. Stanton needed a deckhand, and before I knew what was going on, I was in his skiff and headed to his boat. I notified him that I had limited boating experience, but apparently he felt confident in me, as he left me in charge of his 45 foot vessel while he tied a line on the whale. About five hours later we arrived at our destination. The locals were intrigued by our arrival and helped the DFO officers and our crew secure the carcass. The crew worked until 3 am to secure the carcass above the high tide line to ensure the carcass would not drift away over night. Final arrangements have been made, and the necropsy has been scheduled for Sunday. We may be one step closer to finding out who this whale was, and why he died. Stay tuned...

Light fading on crew members as they reach shore


[Note: Other members of the New England Aquarium staff have responded to deceased whale incidents. You can read about another incident closer to Boston in this post from the Marine Mammal Trainers.]


  1. I tuned in to find out whats happening- and.. this is sad but well written (nicely done, Zach) and is this possibly the same whale that AW had earlier this summer last seen on this side?

    Hope all well and to see you guys sometime this season.

  2. This is an unfortunate event. I am interested to know why this Right Whale died. I am also curious as to why the dead juvenile fin whale found in the Minas Basin/Upper Bay of Fundy wasn't towed to a place where a necropsy could be done. Perhaps they didn't want to know why the whale was killed? They certainly had ample opportunities to tow the whale somewhere and do an investigation on it. http://tinyurl.com/dead-fin-whale

  3. For further thoughts on dead whales, and the protection of all whales, in the Bay of Fundy, there is a posting at the CBC Maritime Noon site that might be of interest to some:

  4. Novamaz - I suspect one reason the minke whale wasn't necropsied like this is that resources - human and otherwise - to conduct such work are limited. Priority is placed on right whales because they are endangered and only 400 or so remain in the population. I think it's simply a matter of having to prioritize. As was stated in the link to the article you provided, heavy machinery wasn't available in that case.

  5. where exactly was this whale found on the Nova Scotia coast?

  6. Megan- There was a right whale calf that AW found in early July, but unfortunately this was a different whale. Amy will be writing a post soon with more details. Thanks!

  7. novamaz- Since we work strictly with right whales, we aren't familiar with why a necropsy wasn't performed on the fin whale. Like the anonymous poster mentioned, the whale was not accessible to heavy machinery, but maybe also was not available to be towed because of poor weather or lack of other necessary resources. It would have been interesting to find out the exact cause of death though. Thanks!

  8. Richard- We found this whale in Cardy's Cove in Digby Neck. We attempted to tow it in to Sandy's Cove, but instead landed it in Gulliver's Cove. A blog detailing the necropsy will posted shortly. Thanks!

  9. Marianna, yes the comments Anonymous made correctly reflect the inability to get the heavy equipment required...on 2 different beaches that it landed on...to do the necropsy. I had been informed of this previously.

    At first, in early June, just after the announcement that the NSP/Open Hydro turbine had been discovered to have bent blades in their turbine, the dead fin whale was found on Tennycape beach, near Burntcoat Head. Circumstantial, certainly. The MARS people (Maritime Animal Rescue Service) were able to visually inspect it and said they couldn't say the cause of death without a necropsy, but being a juvenile fin whale it was likely dead due to human intervention. They weren't specific about this. A few days later it floated away from there on a high tide.

    I got a call from a lobster fisher buddy who spotted the fin whale carcass floating in the Minas Basin and gave me the GPS coordinates for it as it was passing by Five Islands/Parrsboro on an ebb tide. I immediately phoned those coordinates to MARS. I thought that they, or DFO might be able to tow it to a suitable beach and perform the necropsy. Apparently no one made the effort to do this and it turned up a few days later on a rocky beach between Halls Harbour and Long Beach. It's only a few kms away (maybe 10 km from the GPS coordinates) so it wasn't travelling very fast. The tides/winds that brought it into the Halls Harbour area, after the new moon, were so high it got stranded there for a month. The poor folks above the cliff (see article cited above) had the aroma of rotting whale there for the duration.

    Perhaps the attention focused on right whales gives better resources to the science of them and the interest for their survival. I know this is important. (I adopted one--"Lucky"--for my daughter back in the early 1990s.)

    However, since it was a *juvenile* fin whale and it was the first dead one found in Minas Basin in....well, no one can say...PLUS there had been significant interjection by man-made equipment (the 400 tonne, 10m diameter turbine placed 20 metres underwater in the path of the strongest Fundy currents, which I can only presume is where the fish are migrating in early June), well... I thought they could've at least done something to investigate the cause. After all, in their EA they said they hadn't see any whales in the area (when they looked in October).

    So, yes, doing a necropsy can be difficult if you don't have the opportunity to tow it to a beach where you can get the proper equipment in, like DFO did with the right whale of this blog. I thought by calling in the GPS coordinates it would made it much easier (more accessible) to tow to a beach.

    --marke slipp (novamaz)

  10. Anonymous- Yes, likely as you say, the resources are slim and priorities have been set. It is fair comment. It wasn't that the facilities (backhoe?) weren't available, but that they couldn't be taken to those specific beaches.

    That the weather was fine, and the conditions amenable to a rescue was what frustrated me, especially under the circumstances.

    I look forward to hearing the results of this necropsy. As you note, there are precious few right whales left.

  11. Novamaz - this is a tricky situation because it isn't anyone's "job" to do these necropsies on whales. Even for people employed by organizations that do the research on whales (the NE Aquarium researchers or the pathologists from the veterinary college) - all of them are losing time at their scheduled work when they take a couple of days to do a necropsy. As for MARS, it is a non-profit organization consisting of two people who have full-time jobs, and thus they manage MARS 'on the side'. MARS is, however, part of a region-wide network that is working to improve resources and protocols to respond to as many incidents like this as possible. Perhaps some time in the future it would become possible (financially and otherwise) to necropsy every large whale that is found. As for what role DFO or other government agencies should take, that's something I can't really speak to.