OCEAN CITY - A 12-foot whale stranded itself on the 35th Street beach Wednesday, giving beachgoers an impromptu lesson in marine biology and the harsh cruelties of nature.
Hundreds of beachgoers watched the death throes of the short-finned pilot whale, which officials said was severely underweight.
Isabella Astolfi, 9, thought the fin near her in the surf off 36th Street was that of a bottle-nosed dolphin, which are spotted daily off Ocean City's beaches. The struggling animal came ashore a block north.
Lifeguards pulled bathers out of the water and away from the thrashing whale. The cetacean looked skinny for a whale, with a bulbous head and glossy black skin that reflected the sunlight.
Jim Shelton, of King of Prussia, Pa., said some beachgoers wanted to push the animal back into deeper water. Lifeguards kept the would-be rescuers a safe distance away for fear the heavy animal might harm someone with its flailing.
"One lady was ready to have it out with the lifeguards," Shelton said. "She couldn't understand why four able-bodied lifeguards wouldn't do anything to save it."
Shelton said he was angry, too, until he realized the animal was obviously sick and dying.
"It was funny how some parents reacted. Some told their kids the whale died, and it was nature's way. Others said it was just sleeping," he said.
Jay Pagel, a representative of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, responded to the stranding in Ocean City. He said this was the first stranding of a short-finned pilot whale in New Jersey so far this year.
A study in the journal "Animal Ecology" called short-finned pilot whales the "cheetahs of the sea" because they could sustain long-distance swims at high speed while hunting prey.
The Ocean City whale was a juvenile and underweight, Pagel said.
Lifeguards and police officers pushed the carcass onto a stretcher and hefted it into a pickup truck that carried it to a waiting stranding center van. Pagel took the whale to the University of Pennsylvania, where it would undergo a necropsy - the animal equivalent of an autopsy.
But a whale - even a dead one - was a curiosity on the beach.
For many visitors, the whale was the first they had ever seen. Some parents photographed their children standing in front of it.
Monica Schroeder of Harleysville, Pa., said she was disappointed the animal could not be saved. She recently went whale-watching in Maine and saw finback whales, the second-largest animals on Earth.
"One was right next to the boat for a long time," she said.
Children accepted the whale's death with aplomb.
"I was really sad. At first I thought it would survive. We named it Ruby," said Christine McGinn, 9. "Rubies are precious, and this whale was precious to us."
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