Smithsonian will get rare whale — after it spends spring buried at Fort De Soto

The 38-foot Bryde's whale turned up dead near Everglades National Park. After a thorough exam, biologists trucked it across the state for a temporary burial at the Pinellas County park.
Published Feb. 6, 2019

A rare whale turned up dead near Everglades National Park last week. Now it's buried at Fort De Soto — but not as a final resting place. Instead in the spring, it will be dug up and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution so its skeleton can be preserved.

That's because this is one of no more than 50 Bryde's (pronounced BROO-duss) whales that live in the Gulf of Mexico. Biologists don't know much about them except that they're genetically distinct from the other types of Bryde's whales, and that they may deserve legal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

So when a 38-foot-long one turned up dead near Everglades National Park, state and federal scientists seized the opportunity to examine it thoroughly.

PRIOR COVERAGE: "World's Weirdest Whale" may need legal protection.

An angler first reported the 23,000-pound carcass floating off an island 10 miles south of the park's Flamingo area last week. Biologists towed it to the Flamingo boat ramp, which is a somewhat isolated spot. Nevertheless, biologists from multiple organizations flocked there to take a look at the rare specimen.

Although it turned up off the Florida peninsula's southern tip, this particular animal was matched to a photo of a whale observed in the northern Gulf of Mexico in November. That means it's part of the small band of Bryde's whales in the gulf, which were proposed for Endangered Species Act protection in 2016.

Only one other specimen from that family of whales has ever been found dead. It was discovered floating in Tampa Bay in 2009. But because scientists didn't realize then how rare the gulf colony was, they didn't do a full-fledged examination.

They were determined not to make that mistake again.

They began the necropsy — the animal version of an autopsy — by cutting into the whale's skin about 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 31. They worked for four hours, until the night had become too dark to see well. Then they returned the next day and worked another three hours to finish the job.

"If we get to them when they're fresh dead, we can really learn a lot," said Denise Boyd, a researcher for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who took part in the necropsy. She said biologists get annoyed when well-meaning people push dead whales back out into the water.

Bothered by buzzing insects, and careful not to slip on the slick insides of their study subject, the biologists took several measurements and tissue samples, Boyd said.

They also discovered something disturbing: a 3-inch-square piece of plastic in one of the whale's stomach chambers. At this point, Boyd said, no one knows what killed the whale, but that could be a key piece of evidence.

"The entire case will need to be reviewed" before making a determination on the cause of death, she said. (Many Bryde's whales are killed by being hit by ships.)

PRIOR COVERAGE: Seismic blasts in Gulf of Mexico harm whales, dolphins.

Once the necropsy was done, they rented a flatbed truck, loaded what remained of the whale and sent it rolling toward Pinellas County's sandy beaches. The whale's remains were wrapped in a blue tarp so passing motorists couldn't see (or smell) what the truck driver was hauling.

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"It was kind of a unique experience for him," said Erin Fougeres, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's southeastern marine mammal stranding network.

The truck arrived at Fort De Soto last Thursday afternoon. On Friday, a backhoe dug a hole in an area north of the flagpole at the county park, and the remains of the whale were rolled into the temporary grave and covered up, Fougeres said.

There it will sit until spring, when a crew from the Smithsonian Institution will dig it up and take it to Washington D.C., according to Michael McGowen, the curator in charge of the division of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Once there, it will be put into a special facility for ridding the remains of bugs, and then further cleaned so that only the skeleton remains.

The skeleton will then be transferred to a special Smithsonian warehouse that's full of other whale skeletons, where it will be classified as the "type specimen" representing all of the Bryde's whales from the Gulf of Mexico, he 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. A British newspaper, the Daily Mail, has called Bryde's whales "the world's weirdest whale," in part because when they leap from the water they look "like an enormous eel flying through the air."

To add to their odd appearance, they have three parallel ridges on the top of their heads and between 40 and 70 throat pleats allowing their mouths to expand like a bellows.

Bryde's whales have no teeth. They are baleen whales, meaning they filter their food through hairy strands in their mouths. The ones in the Gulf of Mexico are the only baleen whales that live there. McGowen said he hopes that an examination of this whale's baleen will give new clues about their diet and overall health.

Federal officials hope to announce their decision about listing the gulf's Bryde's whales as endangered very soon, said Calusa Horn of the federal fisheries agency. She said the public was very supportive of the listing, but the oil and gas industry strongly objected to it.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.