ROCKPORT — It was worse for wear than when it was first spotted, and the stink was strong enough to make a 4-year-old girl beg her mother to leave the beach. But the dead 55-foot finback whale that washed up on the rocky shores of Rockport still attracted a steady stream of onlookers Tuesday afternoon.
Barring high tides with strong waves, that spot could be the whale’s final resting and exhibition space: Rockport officials have decided to let it decompose naturally.
The whale carcass, first seen floating in Boston Harbor more than two weeks ago, washed up Monday in a rocky area near Cape Hedge Beaches, reachable by a narrow residential footpath off Penzance Road. Getting any equipment there to bury it or remove it would be too difficult, said Joe Parisi, director of Rockport’s Department of Public Works.
“Attacking it from the ocean would be another option, but we’re talking about specialized equipment that we don’t have at Public Works, like boats,” Parisi said. “It’s very challenging and it would be some costs that would have to be incurred to get rid of it. . . . Right now we see it as a limited problem.”
For as many humpback whales and other species that have washed up on that south-facing shoreline, Parisi said his department has never dealt with anything as large as this finback whale.
Removing a carcass that size could cost the community from $5,000 to $20,000, estimated Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium. Finbacks, he said, are an endangered species that can grow up to 75 feet, and are the second-longest whales after blue whales.
Rockport resident Sue Thurson, who came down to see the whale Tuesday, agrees with the town’s decision to let nature take its course.
“It would save us a lot of money, and how the heck are they going to get in here?” said Thurson, a teacher at the local high school. “I’d like to have it here and rot away and bring the kids from the high school. It’s a natural graveyard. This is the perfect place.”
Kathy Lieser, a Rockport resident for almost 30 years, read about the whale in the newspaper Tuesday morning and said she had to come down and see it for herself. She also said she supports the town’s decision.
“Now that I see this I don’t know how you would access this. It would be a phenomenal task to try to do that,” Lieser said after making her way through the narrow footpath to get to the site. “But aren’t we lucky that we live here and we can say, ‘Let’s go see the whale.’ ”
Since being spotted in Boston Harbor, the carcass floated with the tides to Rainsford Island and Georges Island before drifting 30 miles north to Cape Ann, LaCasse said. Initially, the New England Aquarium was eager to perform a necropsy, but the carcass was hard to reach. Now, it has been decomposing for too long to be of any research value.
Scientists use a gradation system of 1 to 4 to mark the level of deterioration. The finback has already reached the upper level.
“When it gets to 4, or even beyond a stage 4, it’s what we call a blubber bag,” LaCasse said. “If the carcass is intact, it’s keeping an incredible amount if heat, so it’s decomposing tissue at a very rapid rate. Blubber and organs are liquefying from their original state.”
The lack of interest from major researchers led David Taylor to the rocky shore Tuesday, armed with a sharp knife and a hook he bought at a yard sale. Taylor, a retired high school science teacher, was there on behalf of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he is a guest investigator, to collect the whale’s vestigial pelvic bone.
Taylor, who estimated the finback whale to be between 2 and 4 years old, said the bone, which is not attached to any part of the skeleton, is lost or washed away as huge sheets of blubber are stripped away.
As he cut into the whale, Taylor became the unofficial guide for all the curiosity seekers asking him questions. He said he would clean up the pelvic bone, which measured about 16 inches in length, then photograph it for the institution catalogue, and then hang on to it until he can turn it over to whatever museum keeps the skeleton. If no one claims the skeleton, he said, he would turn it over to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.
“They don’t have a good catalogue anywhere of whale pelvic bones,” Taylor said as he cut through an inch-thick layer of blubber.
LaCasse said the whale skeleton won’t be fully seen until next spring. But one onlooker, who declined to give his name, said even that won’t last long.
“Watch, people will come down here and pick bones out,” he said. “We’ll be seeing vertebrae in people’s flower gardens.”