The carcass of a rare beaked whale washed ashore Friday on Plymouth Long Beach, offering an unusual research opportunity for local marine biologists unaccustomed to sightings of the deep-sea mammal.
The female whale — 17 feet long, with a long, slender, toothed snout, and weighing almost a ton — is thought to be a Sowerby’s beaked whale, according to the New England Aquarium.
Beaked whales are “so rarely seen that New England Aquarium biologists have been conferring to determine the exact species,” aquarium officials said in a statement Saturday. The whales are usually found on the continental shelf, hundreds of miles out to sea in the deep ocean, officials said.
Little is known about the Sowerby’s beaked whale, which are most often seen by commercial fishermen who catch them alongside other sea creatures. New England is believed to be the southern end of the mammal’s range, which extends north into the sub-Arctic, experts said.
Staff at the aquarium last handled a beaked whale in 2006 in Duxbury, the statement said.
The purple-hued, dark skinned whale, which resembled a giant dolphin, was such an odd sight that “everybody was kind of scratching their heads,” said Plymouth harbormaster Chad Hunter in a phone interview Saturday.
Officials received a report for the beached sea mammal at about 10 a.m. Friday, Hunter said. It was stuck on a rocky area of shore during low tide, and “there was no way to get to it and get it out of there,” he said.
The whale’s weight and inconvenient location meant they needed to wait until about 5 p.m. for high tide to remove the carcass, Hunter said. The harbormaster’s office towed it to the pier and lifted it by crane onto an aquarium trailer.
Aquarium biologists were performing a necropsy on the whale Saturday afternoon, assisted by staff from the Cape Cod-based International Fund for Animal Welfare. The results were not immediately available.
It appeared to be fresh, in good condition, and “did not have any obvious entanglement gear or scars or obvious trauma from a vessel strike,” according to the aquarium statement.
Sowerby’s beaked whales were named after English scientist and watercolor artist John Sowerby, who described one of the species that was stranded in Scotland’s Moray Firth in 1800, according to the nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation. They are not often seen in the wild, but are among the most commonly stranded species of beaked whale, according to the conservation.
Few organizations have substantial data on beaked whales, though there more than 20 species of them living in the deep ocean, said aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse. When one surfaces, everyone in the marine biology community pays attention, he said.
To have a beaked whale specimen offers a chance for “a glancing insight into a marine species that not much is known of,” LaCasse said.
Jennifer Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org