Engiles returned to the abscess, followed a trail of infected tissue and bone fragments along the jawline until she came to something even more peculiar.
"We ended up pulling out a bullet," she said. "We don't typically get homicides here."
Weeks earlier, someone had spotted the juvenile whale far off the Atlantic Coast, raised what was likely a high-powered rifle, and fired. The .30-caliber bullet "bounced around" in the whale's head, Engiles said, but didn't kill it. The whale suffered for weeks, the wound near its blowhole all but healed when it was found dying in the surf in Allenhurst, Monmouth County, on Sept. 24.
"It basically starved to death because it was in too much pain to eat," said Bob Schoelkopf, founder of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.
There were no signs the whale had been caught in a net or struck by a boat, Schoelkopf said. The shooting wasn't a botched mercy killing. Instead, Engiles found distinct scratches on its back, teeth marks that suggested other whales in its group had nudged the dying mammal along, or kept it near the surface as it floundered.
Authorities don't believe the shooter was alone in the vast emptiness either. They're hoping a $12,500 reward will nudge someone to drop a line. Paul Watson, of the Discovery Channel series "Whale Wars," donated $10,000 toward it and believes the shooter was a fisherman, either recreational or commercial, who saw the whale as competition.
The whale was probably too far offshore to encounter a recreational boat, said Matt Gilmore, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There's a chance it was shot hundreds of miles north or south of New Jersey. Still, investigators have handed out fliers at marinas in New Jersey hoping to get a tip from the normally tight-lipped fishing community.
Intentionally killing a whale is punishable by a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Jeff Reichle, president of Lund's Fisheries in Cape May, said most fishermen are fully aware of that.
"Whoever did this deserves to get their ass fined big time. It's idiotic," he said from Japan. "This gives good fishermen a bad name."
The bullet is undergoing ballistics testing at the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore.