2016-04-28 / Nature

Beached Whale Piques Curiosity

By Jack Kelly

This is the second young humpback to perish in Rhode Island waters this spring. Another juvenile was discovered on Block Island in late March. The cause of their deaths are still unknown. (Photo by Jack Kelly) This is the second young humpback to perish in Rhode Island waters this spring. Another juvenile was discovered on Block Island in late March. The cause of their deaths are still unknown. (Photo by Jack Kelly) The body of a yearling humpback whale washed ashore recently on a private beach just west of Hazard’s Beach along the Ocean Drive section of Newport.

According to Janelle Schuh, the stranding coordinator at the Mystic Aquarium, “the male whale measured 870 cm [28.5 feet] in length and appeared to be in pretty good condition overall.” Marine biologists took blood and DNA samples in an attempt to determine the mammal’s cause of death. Plans for the carcass are still being determined, with one possibility being that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) could tow it out to sea by boat, although other options are being explored.

Curious onlookers, including families with children, have trekked to the beach where the carcass rests. Spectators have commented on the size and age of the whale. “It’s just a baby,” one mature woman was overheard saying. “Its poor mother must be looking for it.”


Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Many in the crowd touched the animal’s flippers and tail in a show of reverence and respect for a young life lost. As many as 15 vehicles were parked along Ocean Avenue on a recent afternoon as a crowd of about 35-40 people walked out to the whale’s resting place.

This is the second young humpback to perish in Rhode Island waters this spring. Another juvenile was discovered on Block Island in late March. The necropsy results on that whale have yet to be made available, and local marine scientists do not have any theories on what could have caused the demise of these two aquatic leviathans.

Dr. Robert Kenney, marine biologist and whale researcher for the University of Rhode Island, explained, “Humpback whales are in all of the world’s oceans, making some of the longest migrations known for any mammal, between high latitude feeding grounds and low latitude breeding and calving grounds. Humpbacks may be found in Rhode Island waters during all four seasons.”

During the winter, humpbacks migrate south from the North Atlantic to the shallow banks of the West Indies and the Caribbean region, with the first whales arriving in December. The peak times for calving and breeding occur in January through March. During this time, mature males broadcast a complex song lasting 10-20 minutes that is believed to be part of the mating ritual.

After a gestation period of about one year, calves measuring 12-15 feet are born in the warm tropical waters. After being guided to the surface by their mothers for their first breaths, the calves begin to nurse. They will be fully weaned by one year, reaching a length of 24- 27 feet, but begin to feed independently at five to six months. The average length of a humpback adult is 39-52 feet, and they can weigh as much as 79,000 pounds!

In late March and early April, humpbacks spread out and begin their migration north, passing close to Rhode Island waters. Their feeding grounds range from New England and the British Isles, north to Davis Strait, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, and Norway. Calves learn the route from their mothers and continue to return to the same feeding grounds into maturity. Humpbacks are known as “gulpers” and feed on large numbers of schooling prey, including fish and krill.

This past December, a large adult humpback, estimated to be 50 feet in length, thrilled some local residents with its enthusiastic breaching displays in Narragansett Bay off of North Kingstown. The whale may have pursued menhaden or mackerel into bay waters during its movement south. After feeding, the humpback made its way back out to the ocean and continued migrating.

A number of seashore communities, from Cape Cod to Gloucester, Mass., are homes to whale sighting cruises that take enthusiasts out to migratory feeding grounds with the possibility of observing these aquatic mammals in their natural habitats.

Our local waters are teeming with life and a day along the seashore may lead to exciting new discoveries.

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