Whale search in roiling seas comes up empty

BAR HARBOR — All hands were an deck to search after an anonymous report Friday of a whale seen floating, presumed dead, offshore near Mount Desert Rock. Crews from College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale, the Bar Harbor Whale Watch, the Maine Marine Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard spent much of the day Monday searching in stormy conditions, but could not locate the animal.

The call came in on Friday, said Jennifer Goebel, Public Affairs Officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said. A search was planned for Monday since the weekend weather was not looking good.

Monday provided a window of time to search for the whale. From Friday’s report, Goebel said responders had “a rough location of the original sighting on Friday and did a drift analysis to see where the whale might have gone.”

A drift analysis, according to Kate Swails, also of NOAA, “provides us with a range where the carcass may be potentially re-sighted based on where it was last seen, and the winds and currents.”

If the whale had been found, researchers planned to find out all they could about how the whale died. “The plan was to tow it back to shore for a necropsy if in good enough condition,” Goebel said. If the body was too decomposed to travel, it would be studied at sea.

The search effort included two ships and two survey planes. The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) sent the Maine Marine Patrol vessel Dirigo and one of the planes. The other plane was from the USCG.

“Our team at Allied Whale searched the area on the Bar Harbor Whale Watch’s vessel Friendship V for seven and a half hours, despite rough sea conditions,” said Lindsey Jones, stranding coordinator for Allied Whale. “The strong winds and seas could have pushed the carcass far offshore, unfortunately.”

The airplanes ran transects, searching for the whale over large areas, while the ships scoured the surface.

“The plane is indispensible in any search,” DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said. “Planes have a vantage point that you don’t get when you’re at water level.”

Nichols said the Dirigo was in communication with the plane while searching a couple miles southwest of Mount Desert Rock for about six hours.

“It was quite an effort,” said Zack Klyver of the whale watch, who was on the Friendship V. “Lindsey Jones needs a hero award from NOAA for all the effort,” he said.

“Our response effort would not have been possible without our devoted volunteers from Allied Whale and the generous donation of crew and vessel time by the Bar Harbor Whale Watch,” Jones said.

The search is unlikely to continue, she said, “due to deteriorating sea conditions this week. She added that because the whale was not found, the species was never identified.

Nichols agreed that the search would not likely continue as a “directed” event, but DMR is regularly patrolling the waters. “If [the whale] turns up in routine patrols, we would report that and take action accordingly.”

According to Goebel, NOAA is currently studying three unusual mortality events among whale species in the Atlantic: right whales, minke whales, and humpback whales.

“There is no definitive cause” of any of the unusual mortality events, she said.

According to NOAA Fisheries’ website, preliminary findings across the three species point to “human interactions” such as ship strikes or rope entanglement, and infectious disease in the case of minke whales.

But because findings are inconsistent, more study is needed. That’s why rescuers take seriously the recovery and study of deceased whales, as well as the rescuing of live ones.

Goebel encourages anyone who sees a stranded whale to call the NOAA hotline: 866-755-6622, or report the sighting on Coast Guard Chanel 16. Reports may be made anonymously.

Jones added that it is helpful “to document every stranding with photographs when possible.”

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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