Image: Dead sperm whale
In this photo released by AMBAR, the Society for the Study and Conservation of Marine Fauna in Spain's Bay of Biscay, a dead sperm whale is seen beached in Zarautz, Spain.
updated 8/26/2011 4:28:04 PM ET 2011-08-26T20:28:04

A 50-foot (15-meter) sperm whale died Friday after washing up on a beach in a resort in northern Spain, and it was so big that a tug boat was unable to pull it back out to sea.

The whale was still alive when it was discovered early in the morning stranded on the sands of Zarautz town, but it soon died, said marine scientist Enrique Franco.

The cause of the whale's demise was not known, but Franco said: "It almost certainly came here to die. It's not uncommon for such animals to beach when they are very ill."

Despite its large size, the whale had not yet reached maturity, said Franco, vice president of the Society for the Study and Conservation of Marine Fauna in Spain's Bay of Biscay.

"It was a 5-year-old male, and mature specimens can live as long as humans, to 60 or 70 years of age," he said.

When the powerful tugboat was unable to drag the carcass from the beach, officials said they would bring in two large cranes to lift it onto a truck. The goal, Franco said, is to determine the cause of death and preserve the bones for scientific and teaching purposes.

"These are big animals, and this one could weigh between 20 and 30 tons," the scientist said, adding that the whale's sheer size made it very difficult to fully examine on the beach.

A large crowd of tourists and residents had gathered on the sands of Zarautz to take photographs and watch the attempts to remove the dead whale.

Franco said sperm whales, like Herman Melville's Moby Dick, were hunted almost to extinction during the last century because of an exceptionally fine oil in their heads. It was particularly prized for lubrication in clocks and watches.

These whales can descend to a depth of 3,000 meters (9,850 feet) and hunt there in absolute darkness for up to two hours, using a sonar location system to detect prey and navigate the terrain, he said.

"Part of their mystique is that no other animal can dive so deep," said Franco.

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