Authorities in Rye, N.H., are scrambling to clear a massive humpback whale carcass from the coastline as the holiday weekend approaches, an effort that will begin on Wednesday when biologists examine the animal and try to determine how it died.
The 45-foot female, which had previously been identified as an 18-year-old named Snow Plow, had likely been dead for several days before it washed ashore.
Humpbacks are an endangered species, and the whale was in her prime years, according to Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium. The aquarium is sending about 20 researchers to examine the animal in an effort to find the cause of death and to prevent other humpbacks from suffering a similar fate, he said.
“For her to die of natural causes at this age would be very unusual,” LaCasse said.
One of the causes the experts will look into is the possibility that the whale was hit by a ship, although there was no immediate evidence of that, according to LaCasse. He said they will also examine Snow Plow to see if she was killed by a biotoxin like the one that felled more than a dozen humpbacks in the late 1980s.
Aquarium researchers have a limited amount of time to examine the whale, which arrived onshore as Rye prepares for the busy Independence Day weekend.
Three weekend weddings are planned in the area near the 35-ton bloated corpse, according to Lieutenant Michael Eastman of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
The whale has already drawn a crowd, as people came from along the seacoast to see the rare specimen. The whale has even caused traffic backups on nearby Route 1A as passersby stop to look.
Wendy Lull, president of the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, said she does not know of any other incidents in which such a large whale has arrived on the shores of New Hampshire. She understands the public’s curiosity.
“The principal reaction is sadness, and then curiosity to try to understand the death and why this happened,” Lull said.
But she urged spectators to stay away from the area Wednesday during the removal effort. She described the process as “very graphic and extraordinarily pungent.”
After the necropsy, officials will begin to load the whale’s flesh into containers for removal, then carry away the bones for preservation.
LaCasse said the findings of the inquiry could be crucial, as this year has already seen a rash of humpback deaths in the region. A juvenile was found dead in Duxbury, Mass., recently, and three others were found off of Rhode Island and Long Island. He said there are about 800 in New England waters.
“That’s a lot of animals,” he said of the recent deaths. “We’re always concerned that we’ve got some kind of exceptional event happening.”