2016-05-05 / Nature

Crossing the Bar

By Jack Kelly

Borrowed from a Tennyson poem, “crossing the bar” is a term mariners refer to when a life reaches its end. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Borrowed from a Tennyson poem, “crossing the bar” is a term mariners refer to when a life reaches its end. (Photo by Jack Kelly) The body of the male yearling humpback whale that had washed ashore in a shallow, narrow cove along Newport’s Ocean Drive last week presented local, state and federal agencies with a major disposal problem. As the week unfolded, higher-than-average tides and strong winds managed to carry the carcass deeper into the cove, which further compounded efforts to remove it safely.

And then there was the curiosity factor.

As word spread, spectators made their way to the site. While many walked along Hazard’s Beach to get to the cove, other folks walking down the driveways and across the lawns of private residences prompted numerous trespassing complaints to the Newport Police. There were also minor injuries from people slipping on algae-encrusted rocks in the tidal pools, while others banged shins while climbing on the rocks. And it was only a matter of time before the constant battering of the carcass against the rocks of the shoreline and the natural process of decomposition would lead to a potential health risk.

Several agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), the Mystic Aquarium Stranding Team, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) conferred on the safest way to remove the whale’s body. Due to the shallow waters and strong tidal currents in the cove, it was decided that RIDEM’s watercraft would perform the tow and disposal.

“[The DEM] doesn’t normally get involved in these types of situations,” said RIDEM’S Chief of Law Enforcement Dean Hoxie. But this, he added, “was an extraordinary set of circumstances. NOAA and Coast Guard boats were unable to navigate the waters of the cove safely.” When time became of the essence, Hoxie explained that all parties involved agreed that the task should fall to RIDEM.

In the morning hours of Friday, April 29, two RIDEM boats, one a 30-foot rigid hull inflatable patrol vessel, and the other a 46-foot offshore research trawl boat, were dispatched. On the inflatable was Newport Harbormaster Tim Mills, whose extensive local knowledge of the cove and the coastline was crucial. Onshore, RIDEM officers had attached a towline to the whale’s tail, or fluke, and passed it to the crew of the inflatable. Mills towed the nearly 30-foot-long whale, weighing tons, to the waiting trawl boat farther offshore, where the towline was transferred. Hoxie said that due to “strong tides and wind, and the drag weight of the whale,” the whale’s final voyage took nearly four hours.

It was a Nantucket sleigh ride in reverse.

A dozen miles south and east of Newport, Hoxie said, “In an EPA-chosen area of open ocean,” the small group gave the young whale a burial at sea. “It is believed that this area will allow the carcass to break down naturally,” he added, “with little chance of it washing up anywhere else. “

Hoxie was quick to give credit to everyone involved. “RIDEM Deputy Police Chief Kurt Blanchard did a great job,” he said, “of coordinating this effort, and our officers and partners worked extremely well together. It was a job well done.”

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