Francois Duckett  /  AP
Biologist Julika Wocial, center left, reaches into a dead whale on a beach in Southampton, N.Y., earlier this month as she performs a necropsy on the giant mammal. Her team concluded the whale probably died from blows caused by a collision with a ship.
updated 4/25/2005 3:18:49 PM ET 2005-04-25T19:18:49

It takes a strong stomach and a keen understanding of whale anatomy to do Julika Wocial’s job — and you’ve got to wield a mean flensing knife.

A recent pleasant spring morning finds Wocial perched atop a decomposing fin whale carcass 60 feet long, hacking away at the deceased beast’s flesh with a gruesome instrument that looks like a surgeon’s scalpel blown up to the size of a kitchen broom. She pauses to brush away an errant strand of hair, then reaches into her overalls to dig out a ringing cell phone.

A few minutes later, between zestful swigs of Gatorade that give no indication she can detect the overwhelming stench of rotting sea mammal, Wocial discusses how much she enjoys her job — the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of applying a rare skill and the pleasure of physical exertion.

“It’s definitely a workout,” she says with a smile.

Wocial and her colleagues at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation typically perform four or five whale necropsies a year — a necropsy is exactly like an autopsy, but it’s performed on an animal instead of a human.

No high-tech examining room
Well, not exactly like an autopsy. Coroners usually have the luxury of examining neatly laid-out corpses that weigh no more than a few hundred pounds, in climate-controlled rooms specifically designed for the operation. The Riverhead Foundation’s Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue crew, in contrast, often finds itself confronted with a well-decomposed animal weighing 100,000 pounds or more.

Today’s specimen has been on the beach only two or three days, though it probably died a few weeks before washing up on one of America’s most fashionable strands. Perched on the dune within sight of the deceased leviathan are several multimillion-dollar beachfront estates. In the crowd of gawkers that inevitably attends a whale necropsy, there are plenty of fashionistas and power brokers sporting designer suits and next season’s hottest sportswear.

Now to measure the body.

“The whale is a little — not emaciated, but a little thin,” says Riverhead Foundation president Charles Bowman.

That could indicate that starvation or a heavy load of parasites could have contributed to the animal’s death, but the team will have to remove the organs before reaching any conclusions. Even then, it’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of death.

Often a whale’s demise is the result of combined factors, no single one of which could have done the job alone, says American Museum of Natural History biologist Diana Weber. Starvation, parasites, disease and the stress of a long migration could have killed this whale, for example.

Bruise found
The crew also looks for bruises or cuts that might indicate the animal collided with a ship, a common cause of whale mortality in the busy North Atlantic. They find one bruise, on the whale’s right side just behind the pectoral flipper. An examination of the whale’s organs will help determine whether whatever made the bruise was something powerful enough to cause internal damage.

“Ship strikes are a major problem,” Weber says.

Evolution simply hasn’t prepared whales for encountering other large, fast-moving objects in the open ocean. They expect approaching ships to detect them and move aside, just as whales have done for millions of years when encountering one another.

After examining the whale’s exterior, the crew starts slicing large slabs of blubber from the animal’s right side. They drag the slabs away with gaff hooks and leave them to sit bloody and glistening in the sand. Rivulets of blood ooze out of the exposed flesh of the carcass and soak into the sand.

Now it’s time to bring in the heavy equipment. A bucket loader with wheels six feet in diameter rolls up to the front of the whale. Under the direction of Riverhead Foundation biologist Kimberly Durham, crew members fasten one end of a chain to the loader’s bucket and wrap the other around the whale’s pectoral flipper.

Flipper lifted, tendons snap
As the machine pulls the chain taut, the giant flipper slowly lifts as if the whale were waving to the crowd of gawking locals on the beach. Then Durham and Wocial begin cutting through the whale’s shoulder joint with their flensing knives. Tendons pop like severed rubber bands until the whole limb breaks free, revealing a ball joint as big as a basketball at the end of the severed flipper.

Durham attacks a section of blubber behind the jaw, where there is a region of thickly pleated skin that is tough to cut through. Once she gets a flap started, she punches a hole into it and loops the chain through. Then she has the bucket loader operator pull the chain taut as she cuts the blubber from the fat below. The chain slips a few times and Durham deftly dodges the stretched blubber as it recoils in a quivering, bloody mass.

As pieces of blubber are removed, the bucket loader carts them down the beach a few hundred yards and back into the dunes where a backhoe is busy excavating a giant grave.

Once the carcass has been flensed — the technical term for removing blubber — from head to tail, the crew lays a large plastic sheet on the sand alongside the whale. Now it is time to remove the organs for examination.

Ship collision suspected
First out are the uterus and the bladder. Then comes a section of stomach, stuffed full of partially digested fish. It doesn’t look like this whale was going hungry, at least.

“Wherever she was, she was getting a lot of food to eat,” Durham says.

Decomposition has left most of the whale’s organs too far gone to be of much use in determining the cause of death. But their location is another story. The whole digestive tract has shifted forward in the whale’s body as if the animal had violently collided headfirst with a massive object. The intestines are inside the animal’s ribcage, lodged up next to the lungs.

It looks like this whale may very well have been killed by running into a ship.

“She does have injuries that seem to coincide with a traumatic injury prior to her death,” Durham says.

Pressure to finish
By late afternoon, what’s left on the sand doesn’t look much like a whale at all, just a bloody pile of meat. Though the scientists would like to spend another day or two going through the remains, local officials are eager to get the mess off their beautiful beach.

So the researchers retreat, taking with them their notes, dozens of photographs and samples of skin and blubber.

“This was a real opportunity to investigate a species of whale that you don’t get many chances to look closely at,” Durham said, noting that fin whales spend their lives far offshore and usually sink to the ocean bottom after death. “Unfortunately she took a lot of her secrets with her to the grave.”

In a few hours, the last scrap will have been buried in the dunes. Anybody who strolls by on the beach, tossing a frisbee to his golden retriever or frolicking with her children in the surf, will see no sign of what happened here the day before.

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