July 3, 2013

Cape Elizabeth whale tale to be about marine research

A decaying carcass becomes a learning tool after it washes ashore on a Cape Elizabeth beach.

By Karen Antonacci kantonacci@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — The scene at the Mona home in Cape Elizabeth on Wednesday was half block party, half dissection lab as the sea breeze mixed with the pungent smell of dead whale.

click image to enlarge

Students from the Shoals Marine Lab in Portsmouth, N.H., examine the carcass of a 25-foot minke whale that washed up near homes on Running Tide Road in Cape Elizabeth on Wednesday.

Carl D. Walsh / Staff Photographer

A 25-foot, 8,000-pound minke whale washed up on Cap and Christina Mona's stone beach Sunday. And, because it's private property, they were left to arrange for its removal.

So Cap Mona got in contact with the Marine Mammals of Maine, a nonprofit stranding response organization. That group got in contact with the Shoals Marine Laboratory, which sent students and staff from Appledore Island, off the southern tip of Maine, to get a hands-on education in whale anatomy.

The laboratory, which educates undergraduate college students in marine biology, started classes Monday and would usually rely on lectures and specimens to teach whale anatomy, said Susanne Renselaer, a faculty member.

Instead, students and staff from the laboratory and Marine Mammals of Maine hacked and sawed with machetes to expose the whale skeleton, which eventually was carried by pickup truck to a facility in Portsmouth, N.H., for use in classes and research.

The blubber and muscles were carried in bins to a tarp-lined truck bed, then carted off and composted.

Samantha Strauss, 22, crouched in rubber waders a foot away from the carcass, working with a small knife to pry some stubborn flesh away from the lower-left jawbone.

Strauss will graduate in August from The University of New England with a degree in marine biology and works as an intern with the UNE-Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center and the Marine Mammals of Maine. She said she wanted to remove as much flesh as possible from the jawbone so the ride back to New Hampshire would be a little less stinky.

"Not everyone gets to say that they cut up a whale on their Wednesday afternoon," the New Jersey native said. "It's sad that the animal died, but it's good and educational that we get this hands-on experience."

It isn't rare for whales and other ocean mammals to wash up on shore, said Lynda Doughty, director of Marine Mammals of Maine. The organization got four whale calls last year, but the Cape Elizabeth whale was their first of 2013.

While the crew stripped the skeleton, local families stopped by to catch a glimpse. Kids held their noses and stared wide-eyed.

"I don't think they'll ever forget the smell," said Mark MacGregor of Massachusetts, who interrupted a vacation to bring his three sons to see the whale.

About noon, the dissection was put on hold, the Monas laid out hot dogs and other food, and visitors and workers were invited to eat. Shoals Marine Laboratory Director Willy Bemis gave a short seminar on the minke whale.

The minke is a common and relatively small whale in the Gulf of Maine. They eat small fish and plankton and can grow to about 30 feet.

Mona said at least 100 people have stopped to see the carcass since it washed up. The whale has been dead at least a week and was seen floating near Monhegan Island about a week ago.

During lunch, Mona announced that they were naming the late whale Willy the Whale, after Bemis, who is leaving the Shoals lab after nine years to return to a faculty position at Cornell University.

Mona thanked the Marine Mammals of Maine and the laboratory and urged visitors to donate to both. The Monas, who moved from Naples, Fla., to Cape Elizabeth three years ago, gave $1,000 and $500 to the organizations, respectively.

Mona said he and his wife were very pleased that the groups could help educate the students and community about whales and, of course, dispose of the 4-ton carcass.

"Everybody is really happy about the whale today, but in a week or two, I don't think they would be very happy with the smell," he said, laughing.

Karen Antonacci can be reached at 791-6377 or at:

kantonacci@pressherald.com

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