Matthew Denny, field coordinator at the Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station, said he and his team responded to the report and arrived this week to find a live stranded juvenile male Cuvier’s beaked whale.
After analyzing the situation and consulting with the station’s contracted veterinarian, it was decided that it was in the animal’s best interest to humanely euthanize it.
When a dolphin or whale turns up, it’s usually no mistake, Denny said.
“They’re not lost. They’re not there on accident. They’re usually sick or they’re old or they’re compromised and they’re suffering.”
To take things a step further and find the silver lining in the situation, the crew took it as a chance to learn and understand as much as possible and conducted a post-mortem exam, or necropsy.
During the necropsy performed Tuesday night, the debris was discovered in the animal’s stomach.
In addition to debris floating around in the water, a virus was discovered.
The virus, morbillivirus, is similar to human measles and has been blamed for the rising number of deaths in local marine life.
“In the past 14 months, we’ve had over 14,000 dolphins strand and of the animals tested, about 96 percent of them were positive for this morbillivirus,” Denny said.
The very contagious virus seems to be exclusively confined to dolphins, he added. It hasn’t been proved that other species are being affected by the virus but it’s something that’s being tested.
Between that and the ocean debris, it was critical for the station to use the whale in understanding some of the issues facing marine life.
Denny said getting that information allows for him and his team to be more effectively equipped to protect and serve these animals in the future.
“We can identify the threats that they have to face, and the implications of our actions with regards to pollution and debris and toxins and contaminants finding their way into the water,” he said.
Samples collected during the necropsy were sent to Atlanta to be processed where a pathology report will be produced, Denny said.
In the meantime, he encourages beachgoers to do their part in keeping the waters safe for both people and animals to enjoy.
“When it comes to the ingestion of foreign debris and entanglement, the best thing we can do is be proactive and try to prevent it, because it’s a lot harder after the fact,” Denny said.
There are a few things that can be done to prevent this type of thing from happening.
First, there is the standard rule of reduce, reuse and recycle.
Second, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife using the toll-free hotline at (888) 404-3922. There is also an app for iPhone and Android users that will walk users through the steps involved to accurately and efficiently report a stranded marine mammal. It offers species ID, allows users to upload pictures, provides a GPS locator and helps report information in real time.
Plastics and floating trash are a problem in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans when current move the debris together in something like a trash island with plastics and bags floating and clumped together.
Denny encourages beachgoers to participate in the coastal cleanup projects that are often held at various beach locations.
Billy Zeits, assistant director of recreation and parks for St. Johns County, said the next beach cleanup is Sept. 20.
A few organizations — including Keepers of the Coast, solid waste of St. Johns County and others — come together to organize beach cleanups and keep marine debris out of the ocean and off or the beaches.