Sharks circling the carcass of a dead humpback whale found floating off the coast of Maryland's Eastern Shore this week will keep scientists from examining the 30-foot-long mammal to find out what killed it.
Fearful that the persistent sharks could endanger beach-goers on Assateague Island, where the Coast Guard tried to tow the whale ashore yesterday, a planned necropsy was called off and the animal's body was towed back out to sea.
"It was determined it would be unsafe to land the whale on shore near people because of the sharks eating it," said Petty Officer 1st Class Heath Smith.
Instead, scientists hope to learn how the whale died by studying the bucket of skin and blubber collected by Coast Guard crew members who spent much of yesterday towing the whale to and from the shoreline. The samples will be sent to the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where they will be examined for genetic problems and toxins.
"It's unfortunate we weren't able to actually examine it," said Julianna Brush, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist. "Any time a large whale dies, it is of utmost importance for us to try to determine why it dies."
Sightings of the federally protected humpback whale are fairly common this time of year in the Atlantic Ocean off Maryland as they skim the coast while migrating, Brush said.
Biologists are more interested when endangered right whales are spotted. When those whales are found entangled, officials try to attach tracking devices for further study.
It didn't appear that the humpback whale had been hit by a boat.
Brush said photographs of the belly-up whale didn't show "any obvious signs of trauma."
The whale was reported to the Coast Guard by a boater late Tuesday morning.
The Coast Guard has been sending out warnings to boaters telling them about the large potential hazard floating in the water.