65-foot fin whale buried in Ocean City sands

John Krauss of Haddonfield and Cindy Collins of Ocean City watch crews bury the whale that washed up on an Ocean City beach.
John Krauss of Haddonfield and Cindy Collins of Ocean City watch crews bury the whale that washed up on an Ocean City beach. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 26, 2012

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Despite the grandeur of whales, their burial can be a rather unceremonious affair.

The decaying carcass of a 65-foot fin whale washed ashore at Seventh Street this week, leaving officials to dispose of the massive sea mammal Wednesday, following a necropsy to determine its cause of death.

A preliminary examination of its ribs and vertebrae showed that the whale likely was struck by a freighter or another large vessel in a coastal shipping lane, said Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

The carcass may have been the same one spotted off Ambrose Light in New York Harbor last week, Schoelkopf said.

The center was called to investigate the stranding after the dead whale was spotted in the shallows on Monday. The tide prevented Schoelkopf and his crew from getting close to the animal - among the largest whale species - and determining its size until Tuesday.

The whale measured about 65 feet - the distance from the ground to the roof of a six-story building - according to Schoelkopf, who said that fin whales, while endangered, are not uncommon along the Atlantic Coast.

Despite the stench, the sight of the animal drew a large crowd, which was confined to the boardwalk as workers and volunteers from the center worked well past dusk Tuesday.

Meanwhile, about eight blocks away, on a bay beach at the northern tip of this Cape May County barrier island that is becoming a kind of whale graveyard, a crew from the Ocean City Public Works Department began to dig a 12-foot-deep hole for the ill-fated whale.

A few dozen yards down the beach is buried a sperm whale that washed ashore near the Ninth Street Causeway several years ago. The location has been used because deep holes can be dug without fear of hitting groundwater, water lines, or other infrastructure, officials said.

Using excavators, front-end loaders, and a huge dump truck, workers created a 80-by-30-foot trench at the foot of the Longport-Ocean City Bridge.

At sunup Wednesday, Schoelkopf's crew completed its necropsy and began carving the carcass using a tool known as a flensing knife. The three-foot knife was seized from a Japanese ship caught whaling off the coast, he said.

The group set up a gas-generated electric knife-sharpening wheel nearby and returned to it frequently as its members cut through the thick skin and blubber.

"This whale was so tough, we had to sharpen the blade about every 10 minutes," Schoelkopf said.

Burying carcasses is part of the history of the Jersey Shore, where the now-outlawed practice of whaling began in the 1600s.

Cut into large chunks, an estimated 50 tons of blubber and bone from the fin whale were driven by truck to the hole in a continuous operation that lasted about seven hours.

"I think seeing something this big wash up has been a once-in-a-lifetime thing, very impressive . . . but very sad at the same time," said resident Joan Hanson, who came to the beach Wednesday and watched as pieces of the carcass were covered by sand.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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