KEY WEST, Fla. — Scientists say a 40-ton sperm whale found stranded in the Florida Keys had trash and marine debris in its stomach, giving them information into what may have led to the gentle giant's death.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says it first learned of the animal on May 10 when a fisherman reported it stranded in the shallows of Mud Keys, a group of islands just north of Key West. As soon as the stranding network arrived, the whale died on its own.
Biologists noted that the 47-foot male adult whale was extremely thin.
A team of wildlife partners around the state jumped into action to tow the animal to a better site for conducting a necropsy (animal autopsy) to try and determine the cause of death. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responders, Mote Marine Laboratory joined NOAA in the effort.
The necropsy revealed a mass of intertwined line, net pieces and plastic bag-type material in the whale's stomach. This debris, according to NOAA, likely interfered with the whale’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients, leading to its emaciated state and eventual stranding.
However, further testing will be needed to confirm the cause of death.
This is the second sperm whale to have washed up in the Keys in a matter of weeks, though wildlife officials don't know if the events are connected.
A newborn female calf died after beaching itself on May 4 in Key Largo. But, Blair Mase, NOAA's southeast regional marine mammal stranding coordinator, said that whale likely died from being separated from its mother.
Mase said officials typically record about two sperm whale strandings a year in the Gulf of Mexico, so two in a week is unusual. Sperm whales are normally found far away from land unless they are sick, Mase said. Anyone who spots a whale near the shore should call 1-877-WHALE HELP (1-877-942-5343).
The Associated Press contributed to this report.