Ocean reclaims 'Double-dip' pilot whale before scientists can do necropsy

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Researchers say there are more than 2,500 pilot whales in waters off northern Cape Breton and while three have died in the last month or so, the deaths appear to be unrelated. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Researchers say there are more than 2,500 pilot whales in waters off northern Cape Breton and while three have died in the last month or so, the deaths appear to be unrelated. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Researchers may never know what caused a large, mature pilot whale to die and wash ashore in northern Cape Breton, N.S., last week.

The Marine Animal Response Society had hoped to get to Bay St. Lawrence, N.S., to perform a necropsy, but ocean waves took the animal back out before they could get there.

Elizabeth Zwamborn, lead researcher with Dalhousie University's Cape Breton Pilot Whale Project, said the animal was known as Double-Dip for the notches on its dorsal fin.

She saw it and said it did not appear to have been struck by a boat or entangled in rope.

"It's really easy these days, with all the news on the right whales and the struggles they have, to jump to the conclusion that it might be human-caused and while that is still a possibility, it's not necessarily what killed Double-Dip," Zwamborn said. "Unfortunately, a necropsy was not feasible before the carcass had degraded too much."

The whale was just short of six metres long. The animals grow to a maximum of about seven metres, she said.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

It appeared to be otherwise healthy and had been eating recently, with no obvious signs of illness, the researcher said.

Zwamborn was able to take some samples from the animal's teeth and skin and hopes to be able to use those to determine its age, health status and possibly its family relationships.

But funding will be needed for DNA tests and other lab analysis of the samples and that could take months.

Zwamborn said there are more than 2,500 identifiable pilot whales in the waters around northern Cape Breton and sometimes they die and wash ashore.

Submitted by Oshan Whale Watch
Submitted by Oshan Whale Watch

Two others died and were spotted within the last month or so. One was thin and looked ill, she said, and the other was badly decomposing and being eaten by sharks.

There doesn't appear to be any connection between the three deaths, but it's still important to study the animals, even with a limited number of samples, Zwamborn said.

"It's extremely valuable data in terms of teaching us a little bit more about the population. Things like what the whale was eating, what age it is — we can tell that from the teeth — or get some DNA to see who it might have been related to."

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