- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

VIRGINIA BEACH — Beachcombers had a rare glimpse of Virginia Aquarium’s stranding team in action when members performed a full-scale necropsy on a 54-foot beached whale.

The fin whale washed ashore Saturday night in the Sandbridge community, and by Monday morning 10 volunteer members, in green and orange waders, were working astride the mammal, whose hide now resembled a corrugated cardboard box in shades of white, gray and black.

The volunteers filleted the whale’s flesh with knives and peeled away the skin in sections as big as king-sized bedsheets. They cut through ligaments and muscles and blubber, extracting tissue and organ samples.

They rinsed away the animal’s blood with buckets of seawater. They measured, photographed and scribbled on clipboards.

Behind the caution tape, Mary Lu Dyer of Virginia Beach watched with her family in the blustery wind. She had heard about the whale on the morning news and waited for storms to pass before heading to Sandbridge.

Mrs. Dyer said she and her husband once had been on a whale-watching trip, but that was nothing compared to this.

“When I touched him, it just felt so awesome,” she said.

Mrs. Dyer described the whale as feeling like jelly in some parts and silky smooth in others.

“I was amazed how soft it was,” she said.

Volunteer Gentry Childress moved along the tape, fielding questions and taking advantage of what educators would call a “teaching moment.”

He said the team had yet to determine the whale’s weight but that it was a female and looked like an older juvenile.

A wound in the whale’s side could have come from a ship and could have been what killed it, though that was just speculation at this point, Mr. Childress said. The animal also could have been entangled in a net or contracted a disease. Regardless, it most likely was dead before washing up, as indicated by the bloating and the bite marks on its side, he said.

Fin whales are known as “the greyhounds of the sea” because they swim and feed at about 10 mph to 12 mph, four times faster than other types, Mr. Childress told the crowd, which included parents with children and teens on spring break.

Fin whales migrate from southern waters this time of year, and juveniles have been known to spend part or all of the winter feeding around the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Instead of teeth, fin whales have baleen, plates ridged like a lampshade that act as a filter, capturing krill and other crustaceans in huge gulps of seawater.

Behind Mr. Childress, the stranding team continued its work, parting the whale’s flesh as a bulldozer eased the pectoral fin off the carcass with a rope and placed it in a dump truck. Other volunteers worked up to their elbows, their arms disappearing behind walls of whale muscle.

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