OCEAN CITY — The second largest animal on Earth created an equally huge mess on the Seventh Street beach.
Ocean City Public Works crews raced the tide Tuesday to dispose of a dead finback whale that washed ashore Monday creating an oily, smelly mess within sniffing distance of the island’s most populous north-end neighborhoods.
“You can smell it,” Fire Capt. Robert Stanton said. “A friend of mine got some of the oil on his shoes when he was on the beach yesterday. Now he can’t drive his car. The smell is untenable. So he’ll be walking.”
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine identified the specimen as a 60-foot finback whale. The finback whale is the second largest animal ever to have lived on planet Earth. These whales can dwarf even the biggest dinosaurs. Only the blue whale is bigger.
Experts with the center spent the day taking tissue samples and performing a necropsy, the animal equivalent of an autopsy. They found multiple broken bones, suggesting the leviathan was struck by a ship, center Director Bob Schoelkopf said.
“Animals are feeding, and they come up to take a breath, and they get hit,” Schoelkopf said.
Before the city could do anything with the decomposing whale, employees first had to build sand ramps over jetties and outfall pipes north of Seventh Street to ferry the whale chunks to a burial site on the beach near the Ocean City-Longport Bridge.
Burying whales is a tradition born from practicality in southern New Jersey. There is simply no easy way to get rid of 50 tons of rotting, disgusting blubber and bone.
Towing the floating whale back out to sea would create a navigational hazard for boats and create problems for other beach towns if the whale floated back to shore.
Business Administrator Michael Dattilo said the beach at Seventh Street was not deep enough to dig a whale’s grave without tapping groundwater. The city was fortunate to have leased a specially designed dumptruck this month for beach maintenance, which made the disposal job easier, he said.
Staff with the Marine Mammal Stranding Center used a portable grinding wheel to sharpen flensing knives they used to dissect the whale. These tools haven’t changed much since the 1700s when Cape May County had a thriving whaling industry.
Workers from the center sliced the whale into manageable pieces. A heavy front-end loader with gripping claws loaded slabs of blubber into the dumptruck, which carted them to bigger beaches on the north end.
Workers raced the tide, which was expected to block truck access to the burial site at the jetties. Dattilo said work would resume once the tides permit.
He said they did not expect to complete the work Tuesday, and would continue today, if needed.
Schoelkopf said finback whales eat small fish called sand lances off the coast of New Jersey. Instead of teeth, they use baleen to filter water from their food.
They are among the faster species of whale and are nicknamed “the greyhound of the sea,” according to the American Cetacean Society.
Adults grow to more than 80 feet and 70 tons. They are found globally, including occasional sightings off southern New Jersey, Schoelkopf said.
The U.S. Coast Guard enforces strict speed limits off the New Jersey coast from November to April to protect whales, particularly the critically endangered northern right whale. Boats 65 feet or longer must operate 10 knots per hour or less in designated areas along the Atlantic coast, including the mouth of the Delaware Bay and New York Bay.
About two right whales die from boat strikes every year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. This is a serious threat to the western North Atlantic population, believed to number fewer than 400 individuals.
Schoelkopf said the center is trying to determine whether the finback whale was already dead when a boat struck it. Based on its advanced decomposition, it had been floating for at least a week, he said.
But in Ocean City the whale proved to be a spectacle for hundreds of visitors who crowded the Boardwalk for a rare chance to see one, dead or not. Strandings are unusual enough in southern New Jersey that part of Strathmere known as Whale Beach was named for one of the behemoths buried there.
The winds changed in the city’s favor on Tuesday, casting the offensive odors seaward.
Police closed three blocks of beach to give workers room. Spectators stood on trash cans and Boardwalk railings to get a better look.
A bus from the Shores at Wesley Manor dropped off Alice Kistner and several other residents who wanted to see the marine mammal. Kistner, 89, said she always wanted to see a whale.
“I never saw anything like that before. It’s a sad thing,” she said.
Kim Wetzel of Upper Township brought her 7-year-old twins, Katy and Ricky, to the Boardwalk to see the whale.
“They were sad that it died. I told them it had an accident,” Wetzel said. “We definitely want to go to Sea World now.”
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