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Mote and partners respond to stranded sperm whale off Venice, await necropsy results to learn more

by Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium 13 Mar 18:14 UTC
Mote's Stranding Investigations Research Program © Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

On March 10, 2024, Mote's Stranding Investigations Research Program responded to a 44-foot, 70,000-pound emaciated live sperm whale discovered off Venice Beach, FL.

Alongside Mote, various stranding network partners, including NOAA Fisheries Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, University of Florida, and the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, came together and attempted to intervene.

As desperate as the Network partners were to reach the whale as soon as they arrived to the beach, the strong winds, harsh wave conditions, and the animal's unpredictable behavior made it unsafe.

Moving large whales, weighing about 70,000 pounds, has serious safety risks for the whale and for the responders involved. Additionally, towing a live whale by its flippers or tail can result in serious injury, including dislocating the tail or flippers, causing paralysis and is considered inhumane, and was not an option while the animal was still alive.

The whale passed on in the early hours of March 11, 2024. The team then conducted a necropsy lasting over 13 hours in an attempt to determine the cause of stranding and death as well as gather vital data for species management and conservation efforts. The collected samples will be analyzed to contribute to understanding sperm whale health and mortality trends.

"Marine mammals often strand themselves when they are sick, injured, or close to death. We strongly encourage people not to push these animals back to sea without the intervention of trained experts to assess the situation. Pushing these animals back into the water could delay the necessary help they need and potentially cause further harm. As soon as the Stranding Hotline began ringing, we wanted nothing more than to get to this animal as quickly as possible to assess how we could help it. When we arrived on scene, the weather and wave conditions so severe that we could not safely approach the whale by boat and a deep trough ran between us and the whale, this coupled with the unpredictable nature and sheer size of the animal preventing us from getting to the animal safely. It was like a gut punch and everyone involved is deeply saddened that we could not have saved this animal, or eased its suffering sooner," said Gretchen Lovewell, Mote's Stranding Investigations Research Program Manager. "While we could not save this animal, we will learn from it. We are proud and grateful to all involved in the entire effort from this cross-collaborative response including scientists, researchers, law enforcement, partner agencies, and the community."

More about the stranding:

An adult male, emaciated live sperm whale weighing about 70,000 pounds and measuring 44-feet, was first confirmed around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 10, 2024, off Venice Beach, FL after Mote Marine Laboratory's Stranding Hotline was notified of the distressed animal.

At about 1:45 p.m., March 10, 2024, stranding network partners attempted to get closer by boat with the Sarasota Sheriff's Office Marine Unit to humanely sedate the distressed animal; however, as desperate as the Network partners were to intervene, weather conditions were too severe, and it was determined that the harsh wave conditions and unpredictable animal behavior made it unsafe.

At about 7 p.m., conditions were still unworkable and the Network made plans to return at first light the following morning.

Venice Police Department and FWC Law Enforcement remained stationed throughout the night and reported that the animal had passed sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., and responders confirmed the that the animal had passed.

At about noon on March 11, 2024, the whale was placed on the beach by a heavy excavator, which was necessary to move such a large animal after it has passed.

The Network performed a necropsy, animal autopsy, from around 12:30 - 8 p.m. on March, 11, 2024, and continued the necropsy and cleanup efforts from about 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, 2024 for a total of about 13.5 hours. Samples were collected to attempt to determine cause of illness and death and to better understand sperm whale health, energetics, and life history.

Once the necropsy was complete, Sea Tow of Venice towed the whale offshore to be returned to sea. Results from the samples will be available to the Network to learn more in the coming months.

"NOAA greatly values our stranding network partners and the support from the City of Venice. The hard work to bring the whale ashore to thoroughly examine and collect valuable biological information is vital to providing both a better understanding of and protection to this species that inhabits the Gulf of Mexico," said Blair Mase - Southeast Region Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator.

"The City of Venice would like to extend its heartfelt appreciation to the scientific community, law enforcement agencies, and partner organizations that all worked tirelessly to manage this very unique occurrence. This response showcased the power of collaboration among numerous agencies in tackling a challenging situation," said City of Venice Assistant City Manager James Clinch. "We would also like to thank our residents and visitors for their patience, cooperation and support throughout this unexpected event. Together, we remain committed to protecting our marine wildlife and preserving the beauty of our coastal community."

Every animal, deceased or alive, matters. Rapid response to live stranded animals is not the only way the team works to contribute to the conservation of our local marine species. The information gathered during the necropsy helps to evaluate the long-term mortality trends of these species, especially as it relates to pathology or human-related activities. Such research data are crucial to species management and conservation, and data from necropsies conducted by Mote's Stranding Investigations Program are provided to state and federal wildlife managers as part of databases of stranding network partners.

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium's Stranding Investigation Program responds to calls of "stranded" (i.e., injured or deceased) sea turtles, dolphins and whales in Sarasota and Manatee county areas. To report a stranded animal to Mote's 24/7 hotline call: 888-345-2335.

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