Pygmy whale beaches, dies in Ipswich

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A rare whale usually found in the deep near the edge of the continental shelf died shortly after stranding on the beach in Ipswich yesterday, according to the New England Aquarium.

The small pygmy sperm whale washed up on Steep Hill Beach near the mouth of the Ipswich River, said Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the aquarium.

LaCasse said the whale was about 9 1⁄2 feet long and weighed about 800 pounds. Biologists from the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, N.H., responded to the initial report from beachgoers who discovered the animal. However, the whale had died before a rescue attempt was possible, according to Ipswich police.

LaCasse said a team of scientists would perform a necropsy, something he said was “a CSI for marine mammals,” to determine what caused the whale’s death. That exam will take place at the aquarium’s necropsy facility in Quincy after the whale is relocated. Once the team of scientists is together, La­Casse said it would only take about a day to perform the study.

“This is not an animal that was skinny,” said La­Casse. He said the cause of death “could have been a human cause, or the whale suddenly wasn’t feeling well. We’ll have to see.”

The aquarium’s necropsy team will look for evidence of trauma from a possible collision with a boat as pygmy sperm whales are known to often float motionless at the surface in small groups. Biologists will also look for plastic debris that might have obstructed the whale’s intestinal tract.

The whales feed on squid and can often mistake a plastic bag for their favorite dinner.

Pygmy sperm whale strandings are incredibly rare, LaCasse said, because the animals are usually so far off the coast where prevailing currents sweep them away from New England beaches if something does happen.

The pygmy whale is a cousin to the sperm whale, featured in “Moby Dick,” LaCasse said. The “type of whale New Bedford was built on,” he said, for the premium oil, known as spermaceti, collected from the animals’ heads.

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