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Rare whale washes ashore in Palm Beach

Posted at 10:48 AM, Jun 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-06 05:24:45-04

Not your typical sight in Palm Beach.

A rare, pygmy sperm whale washed ashore on the north part of the island on Monday morning. Volunteers fought through the rough weather to get the body off the beach and into a research lab.

We were the first news crew on the scene both on the ground and in the air with NewsChopper 5.

Turtle nest biologists with DB Ecological Services discovered the whale alive as it started washing ashore around 7 a.m. near Reef Road. It measured about 7 feet long and estimated to weigh around 400 pounds.

Unfortunately, it died but researchers hope the whale can help them learn more about this rare species.

Jerry Wheeler of Palm Beach told WPTV's Alanna Quillen that he had never seen anything like it in his neighborhood.

"I've lived here since 1998 and I've never seen a whale wash up around here like this," said Wheeler, who lives in the homes nearby the beached whale. "It's sad to see."

The turtle nesting site volunteers worked to keep the whale on the beach by tying a rope around it’s tail until marine recovery crews arrived.

"If an animal comes ashore, there's something wrong with it," observed Shawn McCall, a volunteer with the Marine Animal Rescue Society, or MARS.

He said it's difficult to try and get beached whales back out into the sea.

“If they’re there for a reason, they’re just going to go farther down the beach and strand again," he said of other times whales have come ashore on South Florida beaches.

MARS, researchers with NOAA and turtle nesting volunteers worked to hoist the animal onto a tarp stretcher.

The whale had beached itself in a turtle nesting site making it difficult to remove because no vehicles are allowed there. Volunteers had to physically carry the 400 pound whale through the rain over 100 yards to the road and into a truck.

Pygmy sperm whales, which are part of the tooth whale family, typically stay in deeper waters. They swim thousands of feet below the surface for food.

The whale is rarely seen alive in the wild and not much is known about the species, so it's even unknown how many exist in the ocean. The only way researchers have been able to learn anything about the whale is after it is has died and washed up on land.

"This species is fairly rare. We don't have a ton of information on them so this definitely is a great opportunity for us to learn more about the physiology of the species, the morphology, prey, anything we can learn," said Bree Karns, a marine mammals specialist for NOAA.

This particular whale on Monday could've died from illness or getting lost from its habitat, according to Karns.

"There must have been something going on with this one to make it come up onto the sand," she said.

The animal had no visible injuries and it wasn't immediately known how it died. The whale was driven down to the NOAA lab in Miami for a necropsy.

Experts told me if you ever see a beached animal, set up a perimeter and keep people away from it as much as possible.

"Different bacterias live on marine mammals that we are typically not exposed to. So any time of handling of the animal can put people at risk," she said.

McCall said his organization suggests downloading a free app called Dolphin and Whale 911. It's free in the Apple and Android stores.

"You can literally just click on it and it takes you through the process of calling the proper organizations," said McCall.

The app, supported by NOAA, allows you to click through a series of questions about the animal. All the information is submitted to the proper marine organization, which will respond immediately to the site.