PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — In life, the female humpback whale known as “Spinnaker” became famous for her bad luck: on multiple occasions over nine years, she became badly entangled in different kinds of nets and rope from fishing gear in the ocean.
Spinnaker was disentangled from lobster gear that had her “hog-tied” from mouth to tail near Cashes Ledge off Cape Cod in May of 2015. A month later, her body washed ashore at Great Head in Acadia National Park. She had a record of entanglements going back nearly a decade.
“Over this protracted period of her life, she never really got a break,” College of the Atlantic whale expert Dan DenDanto said. “She was always recovering.”
Now the whale’s skeleton will continue to be able to shed light on animal entanglement issues. DenDanto and a team of whale experts, doing business as Whales and Nails, assembled the skeleton as a permanent exhibit at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) last month.
CCS is an independent research and conservation organization authorized by the federal government to respond to whale entanglements. Their entanglement response group, headed by Scott Landry, also trains Maine Marine Patrol officers in whale behavior and entanglement response techniques.
“Her history of entanglement, including a minimum of four interactions with gear (in 2006, two in 2014 and her last in 2015), helps us relate the details of the entanglements to her injuries at a level of detail that is unprecedented,” Landry said.
Some of the entanglements involved gill nets used in the haddock and cod fisheries, and others were with lobster fishing gear.
Spinnaker was well known to Bar Harbor’s whale researchers as well as whale watchers. College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale maintains a North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog to track individual animals and improve understanding of the overall population. The catalog contains photos of the whales and identifies them by their unique markings.
“It was off the Schoodic Ridges in our waters here, 18-20 miles off of Bar Harbor, where she was first seen as a calf,” Dan DenDanto of Whales and Nails said. She was 11 years old when she died.
The carcass was towed to a Hull’s Cove beach where researchers from Allied Whale and from CCS performed a necropsy. DenDanto led the necropsy team. “We probably had 650 human hours dealing with Spinnaker over her life,” between disentanglements and the necropsy, he said, “so we had some attachment to her.
“We were not able to have a smoking gun as a cause of death,” he continued. “She had been eating, her stomach content and blubber condition were healthy. But there she was. She did still have gear embedded in the top of her mouth. There was no way [a disentanglement team] could have removed that without surgery.”
The embedded gear was gill net. The CCS team had worked to free Spinnaker from a gill net in September of 2014, but DenDanto said they were not able to get all of it out of her mouth.
“They cut the net very close to the baleen so she had just a very small bit of gear in her mouth.”
The whale carcass was composted for a year, and then in 2016, the crew unearthed the skeleton.
“We got our first look at the rostrum, the roof of her mouth,” DenDanto said. “There was a very deep laceration into her jaw” from the gill net. “One of the bones was completely severed. It was absolutely horrific to see it for the first time. It was as if somebody took dental floss and sawed into your face.”
Whales and Nails included some rope in the whale’s jaw in the exhibit, to illustrate how the injury occurred. “It’s a dramatic and powerful statement to see the injury,” he said.
DenDanto said they found clues in the skeleton that supported a theory that the entanglement issues had led to a secondary bacterial infection. They found degraded bone tissue at base of the skull and around one eye. That corresponded with what they noticed during the necropsy, that certain areas of the throat that looked black, or necrotic.
“You’re not going to be able to prove it unequivocally, because we didn’t sample bacteria during the necropsy, but my own opinion is that’s likely what caused her death,” he said. “So in this case, the manner of death was entanglement, and the specific cause of death was a secondary infection.”
Following an entanglement incident, rope, buoys and any other material found also are examined. “Any gear removed during a disentanglement or a necropsy is held by NOAA Fisheries,” said Jeff Nichols of the Maine Department of Marine Resources in 2015. “It is transported under chain-of-custody protocols to a NOAA specialist who evaluates the gear, reconstructs the entanglement, checks for compliance, tries to determine where it came from or what fishery is involved and tests it for things like specific gravity and breaking strength. The testing is done at a NOAA facility in Rhode Island, which is where the cases also are archived.”
“The gear is just as protected as the whale,” DenDanto said. “In the building of the exhibit, we designed it to be able to make the skull accessible in anticipation that there’ll be continued interest in looking at this particular specimen to understand the entanglement problem.”
The skeleton will be displayed to the public at CCS, Landry said, but will also be part of ongoing studies into the biology and humpbacks and the effects of entanglements on individuals and populations. “We know of no other case, anywhere on earth, that is so richly detailed – from the disentanglements, to the necropsy done by COA and now as a specimen prepared by Whales and Nails for further research,” he said. “Ultimately, the goal of this work is to find workable prevention measures that will benefit whales in the future.”
Additional information about current research into protecting whales from fishing gear and regulations designed to reduce entanglements will be published in an upcoming edition of the Islander.