Mar 11, 2024 - News

The cause of death for the whales that washed up in Virginia is unknown — for now

a beautiful humpback whale leaping from the water

A humpback whale off the Atlantic coast. Photo: Francois Gohier/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Three whales washed up on or near Virginia shores last week, and a fourth died farther south along the North Carolina Outer Banks. Officials are still trying to determine what caused their deaths.

Why it matters: Humpback whales specifically, the species found in Virginia last week, have been washing up along the East Coast at elevated rates since 2016, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

  • Minkes, the third whale to wash up last week, have also been dying with unexpected frequency since 2017.

Catch up quick: Last Sunday, March 3, a deceased juvenile humpback washed ashore in Virginia Beach near 25th Street.

  • The next day, a second dead male humpback was found on the beach a few miles south at False Cape State Park.
  • And Tuesday a dead minke washed up in the Outer Banks, in Corova, the 4WD beach north of Corolla that abuts the Virginia state line.
  • Then, on Friday, a juvenile dwarf sperm whale died after coming ashore in Nags Head, about 45 miles south of the Virginia line, the Virginian-Pilot reported.

A necropsy was done on the first whale found, but results will take a few weeks or even months, a NOAA Fisheries spokesperson tells Axios.

  • The second whale had no recent signs of trauma, but there was scarring on its tail that indicated an unknown "previous entanglement."
  • The minke in Corova floated away before NOAA could examine it, WTKR reported.

Fun fact: Winter and early spring are primetime for whales to be along the Mid-Atlantic coast, due to their annual breeding, mating and feeding migration patterns, according to Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

The big picture: Officials don't know why these whale species are dying at unprecedented rates, but some sort of human interaction, like a ship strike or entanglement, are at play in around 40% of examined cases, per WTKR.

By the numbers: 214 dead humpbacks were found along the East Coast between Jan. 2016 and Nov. 2023, including 31 in Virginia, per the latest data from NOAA.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with details about the dwarf sperm whale that died in Nags Head.


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