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All that live must die, passing through nature to eternity

-William Shakespeare

I have so many posts about Scotland rolling around in my head, but in light of recent events, the focus of this post will be life and death in the sea.

Allied Whale, the marine mammal group I volunteer with, had a call on Christmas Day from one of the local islanders. A dead whale had washed ashore. In the next few days, a few of the experienced members of the Allied Whale team went out to gather data on the young adult Humpback. The Gulf of Maine had lost one of her sons.

WP_20141229_13_38_32_ProNot a terribly common, and yet a not uncommon event, the finding of a carcass of a whale along Maine’s rocky coastline always leaves me awash in a sea swell of emotion.  As a scientist, I find it a macabre, yet interesting, and almost exciting event. How did this whale live? How did it die? What can we learn from the gross appearance of the carcass and tissue samples? Will it help further our understanding of live whale strandings and disease? Where had this whale been and what could its travels have told us about migratory patterns and environmental conditions?

As a veterinarian, I am curious and concerned. What was the medical cause of death? Disease? Injury? Age? Human interaction? Will we even be able to determine? Now that the carcass is on the beach, what health risks does it pose from predation by wild animals? Are pets running on the beach safe? What about curious onlookers and people living nearby? Who is going to dispose of the carcass and how will they do it? Or does the sea take it back?


As a community member, I am saddened and frustrated. I live on the coast because I am passionate about the conservation of the marine habitat.  We are just slowly beginning to realize, as a global community, that the ocean is our life’s blood. It flows through everything.  So many of us are drawn to sands and sea stacks, coasts and coral reefs. It is where we go for honeymoons and happy memories. We keep pictures of family days by the sea on our office desks and dream of spending our twilight days in “a little place on the water”. Seeing a seal, dolphin, or whale is a magical moment. On whale watch boats, some may even have seen this Humpback- his fluke breaking the waves as their lives intersected for just a fleeting moment. And yet, we continue to exploit, abuse, and poison the sea and the life within it.  Ah, Mankind, why does it seem to be in our nature to hurt that which we love most? What is out of sight is out of mind…poisonous chemical run off, plastics discarded and ingested by marine life, human activity leading to acidification of the water, deep sea oil drilling, sonar and acoustic noise, overfishing, ghost gear, and trap lines causing entanglements. So we cannot help but ask ourselves, when a marine mammal washes ashore…is this the natural cycle of life and death, or as stewards of these lives, did we fail?

498As a student of history, I am reflective. Is the mantle of stewardship something we have shouldered more recently…a responsibility that comes with impact? Generations ago, we simply didn’t have the technology or means to alter the environment to the extent that we do now. Human interaction as a cause of a whale’s unexplained death (ie setting aside the whaling industry) was just not as likely 200, 500, or 1000 years ago. What then, would people of other times think to see this massive body on the shore? Does simple curiosity and awe transcend time? Would it seem like a gift from the sea? Oil (in some species), blubber, bone, and baleen have all been harvested from whales and used for various purposes throughout history. Or would it be viewed as a warning or omen? A reminder of mortality? From Jonah to Moby Dick, across time, culture, and religion, the whale has played a role as “leviathan”…a monster of the deep. Only recently (in terms of human history) has he been viewed as a wise, sentient, and gentle creature.

The-whale-beached-1617(1)Finally, as a romantic, I am in mourning. I have chosen to live by the sea because my soul is drawn to it. There is something that draws me to the shore, something in me that searches the horizon for the chance of being there when the whale’s fluke rises above the waves or the porpoise’s dorsal fin cuts the water’s surface. There’s a knowing when I meet the seal’s gaze or feel the wind direction change across my cheek. It is a loss then, to see that form on the sand and stone…to watch the sea give up one of her own.

2541The team at Allied Whale gathered basic data on he size, gross appearance, and general condition of the dead Humpback. Careful observation and analysis revealed that the body was that of Triomphe, a 7 yr old male who had been previously followed by scientists and entered into the North Atlantic catalog (which is maintained by Allied Whale). He was a 2008 calf of another Humpback known to researchers, named Spar. Lesions on the body strongly suggest signs of entanglement, but this may not be confirmed unequivocally as the cause of death.

Triomphe was impacted by, and had an impact on human lives in both his life and death…in so many ways. And yet his is but one chapter in the complex story of man, beast, and the sea. I am reminded of an old Scottish Gaelic song about the Selkies this blog is named for, and the life they lead- sometimes human, sometimes seal…both forms affecting the other, and always yearning for the sea.  We are all Selkies…we are a part of the sea and the sea is a part of us.

An Ron (The Seal)

translated from Scottish Gaelic and sang by Julie Fowles

“I am daughter of the King-under-Sea
Royal blood flows in my veins –
Though you see me as a seal
I am noble in my own land.

“Land-below-waves my prison home,
Hereditary domain of the seal;
I will sleep on a salt sea slab,
Myself and my white-furred pup.”

O Princess of the western ocean
Do you have a tale to weave?
Will you tell us how it was
Before you came to live at sea?

“Spells were laid upon us
During our human lives by foes –
Though we now swim the straits
Human nature is our heritage.

“At the dead of feast-day night
We cast our sealskins on the sand,
Playing there as gentle maids
Shaking our blonde tresses.

“But tonight I am a seal
On a rock beside the sea;
It is my nature to give love,
And mankind I hold dear.”


For more information on Allied Whale, marine mammal strandings, and whales in the Gulf of Maine, go to http://www.coa.edu/alliedwhale.htm

Additional photo credits: Rosemary Seton, Stranding Coordinator, Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic


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