Advertisement
  1. Environment

VIDEO: Scientific team digs up rare whale carcass they buried at Fort De Soto

From left: Dan Levine, marine mammal biologist with FWC, Hada Herring, marine mammal biologist with FWC, Jonathon Crossman, with Chicago Zoological Society, and Gretchen Lovewell, stranding program manager with MOTE, work to separate flesh from bone while harvesting the skeletal remains from a 38-foot Bryde's whale on Tuesday at Fort De Soto Park. Supervising, at right, is John Ososky, collections manager with the Smithsonian Institution. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published May 10

TIERRA VERDE — About 100 yards from the beach, under a broiling May sun, a team of scientists worked steadily at excavating a dead body. When two small backhoes couldn't pull it out of the grave, a larger machine rumbled in and tried tugging it out. The crowd began to cheer — then went "Ohhhhh" when the tail snapped off.

John Ososky, who was there to take the body away for the Smithsonian Institution, shook his head. This was what he'd been afraid would happen. He was particularly concerned about keeping the 8-foot by 4-foot skull intact, too.

The body belonged to a rare 38-foot Bryde's (pronounced "BROO-duss") whale that the scientists had buried at Fort De Soto back in February to let the flesh rot away. On Tuesday, Ososky, the Smithsonian's collections manager, was there to supervise its exhumation so he could take the skeleton, or try to.

The rare whale, part of a population of about 30 Bryde's whales that live in the Gulf of Mexico, had washed ashore at Everglades National Park at the end of January. The Bryde's whales of the gulf are so rare that last month the federal government declared them to be endangered, despite opposition from the offshore drilling industry.

Denise Boyd of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who led the team of scientists who examined the dead body, said they found a 2-inch square of sharp-edged plastic inside its third stomach. There were signs that after the whale had swallowed this hard plastic square, it had sliced its way through the first two stomachs, leading to the whale's eventual death. She said they found nothing else wrong with it.

Once the scientists were done examining the whale four months ago, Everglades officials wanted to tow it back out to sea. But Boyd and others worked out a way to load the young male whale onto a truck and haul it across the state, to its burial ground at Fort De Soto. They also worked out plans for Ososky to retrieve it.

Bryde's whales in general are somewhat mysterious. Ososky said no scientist has ever had a full description of them that was peer-reviewed and published. The ones in the gulf are sufficiently different from Bryde's whales that they are a new subspecies and possibly a whole new species, said Erin Fougeres of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Considering all the complications and threats in the gulf, you can see why this population is in trouble," Ososky said.

Bryde's whales are named after Johan Bryde, a Norwegian man who built the first whaling stations in South Africa. The whales have long, slender bodies up to 55 feet long. When they leap from the water they look, in the words of the British Daily Mail newspaper, "like an enormous eel flying through the air."

The scientists began digging up the dead whale about 8:15 a.m. Tuesday, helped along by a pair of small backhoes. Once they uncovered the corpse, it was nearly impossible to avoid the smell of putrefaction that enveloped the site. Nevertheless two scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Jessica Blackburn and Rebeccah Hazelkorn, clambered down into the pit with a pair of shovels to help Ososky excavate around the body.

"We knew it was going to be a gross experience," said Boyd, who also spent some time standing in the muddy goo at the bottom of the pit.

Fort De Soto's chief park ranger, Mike Agliano, showed up about three hours into the dig. He said this was one of seven whales buried at the park, and joked that people keep burying whales there because the resorts and hotels won't let them check in.

After watching the small backhoes trying to tug the body out of the pit using a large yellow sling wrapped around the tail, he volunteered to let the team use one of the park's larger earth-movers. Once that machine growled to life and began tugging on the sling, the whale slid backwards up out of the pit — but then the tail snapped off.

Ososky, undeterred, snapped out a few orders for a new approach, and then told everyone he expected them to finish by the end of the day. Sure enough, by 5 p.m. the team had been able to pull out the skull he wanted so badly, and expected to provide him with nearly all of the rest of the skeleton too.

A U-Haul trailer awaited the whale's remains, to be hauled to a facility in North Carolina called "Bonehenge" where it would be put into a compost heap full of horse manure, hay and wood chips, he said. That will finish cleaning the flesh off the bones.

Once that's done, he said, then the skeleton can be added to the Smithsonian's collection and used as the "type specimen" for scientists to study and compare to other whales.

Fifteen years ago, Ososky had a chance to collect another Bryde's whale skeleton, but kept only the skull and a few ribs and "it's haunted me ever since," he said. "We knew it was a weird whale, but we didn't understand that it was a unique species."

That's why he was so determined to get the whole thing this time, explaining, "The way this population is going, I don't know that I'll ever get another chance."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. A tegu lizard belonging to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is displayed during a press conference. Tampa Bay Times (2014)
    The invasive lizards, which can reach five feet in length, are well established in east Hillsborough.
  2. Rendering of the new Shore Acres Recreation Center that will replace the current structure at 4230 Shore Acres Blvd. NE, St. Petersburg Wannemacher Jensen Architects
    The long-desired project is praised, but some neighbors worry about its proposed height and a new entrance and exit on busy 40th Avenue NE
  3. An administrative judge said a Pasco County ordinance allowing solar farms in agricultural districts did not violate the county's comprehensive land-use plan. Times
    An ordinance did not violate the county’s land-use plan that is supposed to protect rural Northeast Pasco, a judge said.
  4. Diver Everton Simpson untangles lines of staghorn coral at a coral nursery inside the White River Fish Sanctuary on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. On the ocean floor, small coral fragments dangle from suspended ropes, like socks hung on a laundry line. Divers tend to this underwater nursery as gardeners mind a flower bed, slowly and painstakingly plucking off snails and fireworms that feast on immature coral. DAVID J. PHILLIP  |  AP
    On the ocean floor, small coral fragments dangle from suspended ropes, as socks hung on a laundry line.
  5. In his basement office Harry Lee, a retired Jacksonville doctor, who began collecting shells when he was 6 still spends time classifying shells. He's  79 now, and until recently he had what was considered the largest personal shell collection in the world, including quite a few shells that were unknown to science before he discovered them. But he's now given about a third of his collection to the Florida Museum of Natural History, where he also does volunteer work.
(Dede Smith/ Special) Dede Smith for the Times
    Harry Lee has spent seven decades traveling the world collecting shells — and even found one unknown to science in his own back yard
  6.  Designed by Tara McCarty
    Clearwater to host sustainability conference
  7. Fisherman Peyton Vaughan, 58, St. Petersburg, left, throws his cast net for bait, off of the north rest area of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as the Precious Seas Cargo Ship, background, heads toward Tampa in Tampa Bay from the Gulf. A new study has found about 4 billion pieces of microplastics polluting the bay, which can affect the health of marine life in the bay.
    Now scientists will determine the impact on the animals that live in Florida’s largest estuary.
  8. Members of the fire rescue team Task Force 8, from Gainesville help remove a body one week after Hurricane Dorian hit The Mudd neighborhood in the Marsh Harbor area of Abaco Island, Bahamas, on Monday. GONZALO GAUDENZI  |  AP
    The storm’s devastation highlights a risk public health experts have long warned about.
  9. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, right. JAMAL THALJI  |  Times files
    The governor says corporate and municipal polluters should pay more for their environmental crimes.
  10. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was named chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors environmental committee. SHADD, DIRK  |  Tampa Bay Times
    U.S. Conference of Mayors officials appointed Kriseman for his “strong voice on environmental matters.” They said they didn’t know about the sewage crisis.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement