Beached Whale Euthanized In Florida: Necropsy To Determine Why The Animal Came Ashore

By Josh Lieberman on November 1, 2013 11:27 AM EDT

sperm whale
A beached whale that washed up near Tampa, Fla., had to be euthanized yesterday. Above, a sperm whale in happier times. (Photo: Reuters)

With crowds lining the shore of Madeira Beach, Fla., on Thursday afternoon to glimpse a beached sperm whale, veterinarians on the scene decided they had no option but to euthanize the animal. Wildlife officials began receiving reports at 7:15 AM on Thursday morning about the beaching of a whale, a situation which generally doesn't have a good outcome: whales almost only come close to shore when they're sick, carried in by the waves. Officials arrived at Madeira Beach to find a roughly 30-foot male sperm whale, beached about 40 feet from the shore, emaciated and in poor health.

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But before the euthanizing came to pass, hundreds of onlookers were excited for the opportunity to glimpse the majestic creature. 

"It is really interesting and it's a once in a life time thing to see," onlooker Shelly Crain told Tampa station WTSP. Crain even took her 14-year-old daughter, a marine biologist hopeful, out of school to see the whale.

The Crains and other onlookers were kept at a distance by a police cordon, with the crowd seeking answers from aquarium volunteers. According to the Tampa Bay Times, onlookers were so persistent in their questioning about the whale's heath and why it had to be killed that aquarium officials repeatedly went up and down the cordon explaining the situation. The beached sperm whale was sick; if it were healthy, it wouldn't be heading to the shore to die but swimming many hundreds or even thousands of feet underwater. There are no rehabilitation facilities for a whale of this size, and dragging the creature out to sea would only result in it washing up again.

So a sedative was sent for, and at around 2:00 PM the University of Florida in Gainsville provided a 6-foot syringe and potassium chloride. Gravity was crushing the whale's organs -- the animals don't do so well out of water -- and with the tide lowering, volunteers were able to safely make it to the whale and humanely administer the sedative into the animal's heart.

"He didn't get to have a long and healthy life, which is quite a shame," said Mike Walsh of the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine and the leader of the euthanizing team.

A variety of agencies spoke with onlookers and journalists during the euthanizing, explaining to the upset crowd why the whale had to be killed.

"You just don't want to prolong suffering in a case like this," said Laura Engleby of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The most human course of action in this case is to euthanize."

If there is any silver lining to the beached sperm whale's death, it is that a necropsy is underway, giving scientists a chance to study a creature that doesn't often make it to shore.   

"Our goal is to not only make sure the animal no longer suffers but also find out as much as we can for future events and study things we can only find out from an animal like this," said Walsh. "Is it infectious; is it toxic? What actually made the animal get into this shape and come ashore to die?"

READ MORE:

Saber-Toothed Whale, Extremely Rare Creature, Washes Ashore In Venice Beach, Calif.

'Walking Whale' Fossil Discovered In Peru: 40-Million-Year-Old Specimen May Be Link Between Aquatic and Land Mammals

Whale Ear Wax Keeps Record Of Ocean Pollution

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