Researchers in Nova Scotia are hoping to learn more about a dead pilot whale that washed ashore on a remote beach in northern Cape Breton on Friday.
The adult long-finned pilot whale, named Double-Dip for the two distinctive notches in his dorsal fin, was well known to researchers in the area.
"It was a bit of a shock to get photos of the dorsal fin of the whale, and to match it very fast to a whale that I know," said Elizabeth Zwamborn, project lead with the Cape Breton Pilot Whale Project.
The project has been underway since 1998. Pilot whales are not an endangered species, but Zwamborn said it's still important to study them long term.
"We really don't have the kind of baseline data or or very basic information that we would need in order to recognize declines in population or if they were to be in trouble," she said.
Zwamborn said Double-Dip is the third pilot whale to wash up either sick or dead in the area this year.
It's not yet clear what happened to any of them. But Zwamborn said finding the cause of death is just as important as ruling out others — so as not to "point fingers" if the death is from natural causes.
"Usually when whales strand alone, there's a reason. It could be, like I say, some sort of injury. It could be an underlying cause. Whales do get cancer, they have other issues. They age, just like humans," she said.
Pilot whales travel in units, known as matrilines, with mothers and calves.
Zwamborn said it's rare for the species to return to the same place consistently, but, in the North Atlantic, between 30-40 per cent of whales come back every year, including Double-Dip.
Zwamborn has been on the project since 2013 and has lots of distinct memories with Double-Dip, including a September whale-watching trip while she was in graduate school.
"We had one day where it was calm as glass and it was really hard to find whales that day. It seemed like an oceanic desert … until we saw this … flash of light and we knew there were some cetaceans out there," she said.
"It happened to be the social unit of Double-Dip, who is a whale that, of course, I've been looking for every year."
Ideally, a necropsy will be performed to figure out the cause of death. But the remote location of the beach and weather conditions are making it a challenge for researchers to get there.
"This animal is one that's actually known to the research community, so there's quite a bit of interest to figure out what may have happened to it," said Tonya Wimmer, executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society.
If a full necropsy is not possible, Wimmer said maybe some samples can be collected from the animal. She said society members hope to travel to northern Cape Breton on Sunday to investigate the whale's death.
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