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‘An Unnecessary Death’

A CMAST professor sees firsthand how human carelessness damages sea life.

Whale photo by Emerald Isle vacationer who prefers to be unnamed.

It’s not uncommon for a whale or dolphin to be found washed ashore at a North Carolina beach — it happens about 125 times a year. But when a Gervais’ beaked whale washed ashore in October at Emerald Isle, N.C, it was obvious something was amiss.

That species is typically found “way, way off shore,” says Vicky Thayer, an adjunct faculty member at the College of Veterinary Medicine who teaches marine mammal biology at NC State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) in Morehead City, N.C. “This whale was way out of its habitat,” says Thayer, who is also a volunteer marine mammal stranding coordinator. “You would never see them at the beach if they were healthy.”

The whale was alive when it was found, but it died before Thayer and others could get to it. The 671-pound body was taken to the CMAST facility, where a necropsy was performed by Thayer and a team of veterinarians, technicians and students.

Everything looked normal until Thayer cut into the stomach and found a pentagon-shaped plastic balloon — the kind used to celebrate birthdays and graduations. It was crumpled up and blocking passage of anything through the whale’s gastrointestinal tract. “So the body couldn’t get nutrients the way it normally does,” Thayer says. Milk was found in the stomach, a sign that the whale had been a nursing calf.

Balloon photo by K. Rittmaster, N.C. Maritime Museum/Bonehenge Whale Center.

Thayer felt what she called a deep sadness. “Because it was a young animal, and I thought of the animal’s mother, wondering what happened to her calf,” she says. “And then just a deep frustration that this was an unnecessary death.”

That’s why Thayer asks that people refrain from releasing balloons into the air to celebrate or memorialize special occasions. “Please find an alternative way to honor your loved one,” she says. “Most people wouldn’t drive down the highway and throw trash out of the window. This is the same thing, and possibly worse.”

To report a stranded marine mammal:

N.C. Outer Banks – 252-455-9654

Central N.C. coast – 252-241-5119

Southern N.C. coast – 910-515-7354

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