Marine biologists were trying yesterday to determine what caused the death of a 68-foot fin whale that washed ashore on Cedar Island, Va., last week.

"It was very impressive," said W. R. "Nick" Carter III, a biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Oxford. "It was the largest whale I've seen -- it must have been about the size of a school bus -- and it was in good condition, externally. It was just beautiful."

But the whale, which is about 10 to 12 feet high and weighs about 60 tons, is so large that it cannot be moved, Carter said. It will be left on the beach where it was found.

Fin whales, an internationally protected species, average 70 feet long and are second only to blue whales in size, said Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, N.J. They are also the world's fastest whales, able to swim faster than 25 mph, and they can remain submerged for 25 minutes.

Scientists believe the fin whale that washed ashore Thursday on Cedar Island -- a mature male of unknown age -- died about a week before it was found.

Biologists from Virginia, Maryland and New York met on the sparsely populated island Friday to study the black and white mammal. Cedar Island, accessible only by boat, is about 6 miles from Wachapreague, Va.

Scientists used a flensing knife, the blade of which measures about a foot long and is secured to a 6-foot pole, to open the whale's belly. Then, wearing oilskins and rubber gloves, they went inside the whale to examine its organs and take tissue samples.

"One of the scientists took an eye, and a woman from Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan took the larynx," Carter said.

The larynx weighed about 100 pounds and will be studied to determine how fin whales communicate, he said.

"Fin whales are an endangered species, so whenever one washes ashore, we try to learn as much as we can about them," Schoelkopf said. "We take measurements and study the whale's food content."

Schoelkopf said it is not uncommon for fin whales to wash ashore, although they tend to stay about 100 miles off the coast.

"We see them beached at least once a year in New Jersey," he said. "Most of the fin whales that wash ashore here have died because they were hit by a freighter."

But the whale found on Cedar Island may have died of natural causes, including disease, biologists said.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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