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North Atlantic right whale found dead on Martha's Vineyard beach. Here's what we know so far

The young female right whale was found dead on an Edgartown beach.
Eve Zuckoff
The young female right whale was found dead on an Edgartown beach.

Patrick Flanary: A critically endangered right whale washed up dead on Martha's Vineyard earlier this week. It is the first dead right whale to come ashore in Massachusetts in six years. Right now, researchers, regulators, and tribal officials are all hashing out a plan to examine just how the whale died. Joining us in studio is Eve Zuckoff with the latest? Good morning, Eve.

Eve Zuckoff Good morning, Patrick.

Patrick Flanary: All right. Remind us, where is the whale right now? And what do we know thus far?

Eve Zuckoff: Yeah. So on Monday, officials saw the whale at Cow Bay in Edgartown with rope wrapped around its body near the whale's tail. It's a young female; it appears 2 to 3 years old. But IFAW couldn't yet declare a cause of death. This is the International Fund for Animal Welfare. They're kind of the go-to people for these kinds of cases. They said that that entanglement could have slowed the whale, for example, and then she could have gotten hit by a boat. They need to do a full examination. And that kind of gets us up to today. And if there's anything positive about the death of a right whale — and there really isn't — it's that in this case there are a lot of researchers who can learn things that could be useful to protect the rest of the population, which now stands at just 350.

Patrick Flanary: All right. So we don't yet know what exactly caused the death, but what do we know about what's happening next? Is the whale's carcass still on the beach?

Eve Zuckoff: It is. The whale is in a really tricky spot right now. It's kind of half in the water, half out of it. Research teams, they need to get that carcass on a flat, clear beach for a really effective postmortem exam. So they've tied a rope around the whale's tail and anchored it to the beach. And Kathleen Collins with IFAW said the next step would be happening today.

"So what the team will do is they'll coordinate with a vessel to actually tow the whale back out into the surf and then relocate it to a Marina nearby," Collins said.

So once it's in the Marina, they will put it on a truck, probably a flat truck bed and bring the carcass to a beach on tribal lands for that postmortem exam.

Patrick Flanary: So they'll have to tow that whale. What do we know about its condition?

Eve Zuckoff: Well, we don't know a lot. And this is where, again, there is just so much hunger to learn more — everything we can about this whale. The very first thing will be to flip her over and see the top of her head where she wears her identification. It's these big, completely unique calluses that make clear which right whale is which. And then from there, during the postmortem exam, researchers will need to cut through blubber, do biopsies, see if there's evidence of blunt force trauma from a boat collision, perhaps do a full analysis of stomach contents to see what or if this whale has eaten, and they'll be able to see how deep the entanglement wounds are around its tail. That will then give them a sense of how long the whale was entangled, which is just really important data point to understand what's hurting these whales.

Patrick Flanary: And we want to remind listeners this is no small feat moving a whale. It weighs in at 11 tons, according to your reporting. So that's what, five cars. What do you do with its body once this exam happens?

Eve Zuckoff: Yeah. 11 tons is the equivalent of a cruise ship's anchor or two ambulances. In this case, they will bury the whale right on the beach. If they bury it deeply, far from the high tide line, it's a cost effective way to make the animal decompose naturally over the course of a few years. Burial also reduces the likelihood of attracting scavengers, because that kind of masks the smell. Now, I will tell you, generally speaking, there are other options. You can leave animals like these just on the beach. You would do that if it were a remote area, you could tow it back to sea and release it floating, tow it back out and sink it, bring it to a landfill, incinerating plant, composting facility. All of these are more expensive options. And they wouldn't do this, but in the old days — you can watch this on YouTube — whale carcasses were blown up.

Patrick Flanary: I won't be watching that on YouTube.

Eve Zuckoff: No, don't.

Patrick Flanary: There is a contentious movement, Eve, that opposes offshore wind development. How is this playing out on social media?

Eve Zuckoff: Well, misinformation has been spreading about this whale all over the internet. I've seen it on X, formerly called Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. People are claiming that the death of this whale is connected to offshore wind. You'll remember, Vineyard Wind is currently working on its offshore wind project just 15 miles off the island's coast. But this has been really frustrating for the experts on the ground. They want people to have some patience as they just work on this postmortem exam that has not been done yet. So here's Kathleen Collins again.

"We understand that this is kind of a sensationalized event," she said. "But at the end of the day, we need to give the scientists time with this animal to figure out what happened before any conclusions can be made."

They say the important thing to remember here is that this is a female whale that could have helped her species come back from the brink of extinction if she had time to mature to get pregnant. And now because of something -- we don't know what yet -- her chance to launch more generations is gone.

Patrick Flanary: That is what we know about the death of an endangered right whale earlier this week that washed ashore in Edgartown. That is CAI's environmental reporter Eve Zuckoff. She's headed out the station door right now to make the next boat to Martha's Vineyard to investigate. Eve, thanks

Eve Zuckoff: Thank you Patrick.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.