TAMPA — The massive baleen whale was belly up when they found it in the canal. Its body was bloated, its skin was sloughing off, and long scrape marks were etched into its blubber.
By 8:30 a.m. Sunday, it had floated into a Port of Tampa turning basin, where freighters often travel as they wind through the port's canals. Officials there didn't know what killed it or how it had gotten there. Marine and wildlife officials at the county, state and federal levels were called. The cargo lane was being treated like a crime scene.
Whales of this size, pushing 50 feet long, are rarely seen along our coastline — most stay deeper than the Gulf of Mexico shelf break 80 miles out, said Keith Mullin, a research fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But there it was, a shipping hazard slowly decomposing, tucked into a northern tip of Tampa Bay.
Blair Mase, NOAA's stranding coordinator, had a theory. It appeared to be a Bryde's, one of the most common baleen whales found in the gulf. A ship coming into port could have run into it after it had died offshore and carried it all the way in, its body draped across the bow. The crew may not have known. That has happened before, she said.
To know for sure, the whale would need a thorough necropsy, so officials began to plan its move. A Coast Guard tugboat was called in for the 30-mile journey to Fort De Soto Park. But when the tugboat got within sight, it sprouted a fuel leak. The crew had to turn around.
A commercial boat was called in at federal expense. Workers tied yellow rope around the whale's tail, according to Carli Segelson of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and by 6 p.m. the whale, an adult male, was pulled out of port and toward Pinellas County. The tug had to stay at 2 knots to deal with the whale's tonnage.
Mase said they planned to tug the whale until they neared the coast, where they would anchor and wait for sunrise. This morning, a team will use backhoes to shift the whale from the water to the shoreline.
They will strip one side of blubber, cut through the muscle and scoop out the soupy innards. They'll photograph the body, measure the blubber and document any broken bones. By the end of the necropsy, they hope to know how the whale died.
But the heavy pieces, hot weather and potent stench of decomposing organs may not make that easy. A team of biologists and coordinators from NOAA, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Aquarium, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Mote Marine Laboratory and the University of Florida will combine forces for the analysis.
From there, what's left of the whale will go into the grounds of Fort De Soto. Former parks supervisor Bob Browning dug a hole on Sunday down to the water table, 20 feet wide. The whale will join sperm whales, manatees, sea turtles and dolphins, some buried there since 1975, about 100 feet from the shore.
"Some day, 200 years from now," parks supervisor Jim Wilson said, "somebody's going to think this is the marine graveyard."
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.