Nova Scotia

Not enough information to link dead whale to other dead sea creatures, expert says

An expert on marine mammals says there's not enough information to link the death of a humpback whale to those of thousands of others of sea creatures which washed up near Digby, N.S., over the last few weeks.

A full necropsy on a nine-metre whale will not be easy nor cheap, says one expert

Jennifer Hope Thibodeau (pictured) and her husband Charles took photos of the whale, and posted them on Facebook. (Jennifer Hope Thibodeau and Charles Thibodeau)

An expert on marine mammals says there's not enough information to link the death of a humpback whale to the thousands of dead sea creatures which have washed up near Digby, N.S., over the last few weeks. 

Thousands of herring, starfish, lobster, bar clams, crabs and scallops have been washing up dead since late November along St. Marys Bay, which is fed by the Bay of Fundy.

But it's difficult to determine what killed the whale because it is so decomposed, said Andrew Reid, response coordinator for the Marine Animal Response Society in Nova Scotia. 

Can't draw a direct link

A close examination would be needed to determine why the whale died, let alone whether its death is linked to the deaths of the bottom-dwelling sea creatures that have washed up, he said.

"We can't draw a direct conclusion or a link between the two," Reid said.

"First we would have to know what's killing the fish and the lobster and the starfish and also look for similar cause of death in the whale."

So far, tests haven't revealed a cause. 

"Based on the testing that we've done to date, we haven't determined any indications of infections or infectious agents," said Doug Wentzell, regional director general for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 

Wentzell said there is also no evidence to indicate toxins are responsible. 

Kent Smedbol, manager of population ecology for DFO Maritimes, said right now there's no information linking the deaths of the sea creatures with the death of the whale. 

He's looked at photos of the whale and said it appears that it has been dead for a long time based on how flat it is.

That's a sign of advanced decomposition, he said. 

"It's not uncommon to have large whales, particularly baleen whales, wash up on our beaches. Or be found dead carcasses floating in the Bay of Fundy," Smedbol said. 

'Pretty sad that is'

Judging by the whale's length, it was likely a juvenile that had been weaned from its mother but was not yet mature, Reid said. 

A full necropsy on a 9-metre whale is not easy or cheap, says one expert. (Jennifer Hope Thibodeau and Charles Thibodeau)

Charles Thibodeau stumbled upon the decaying nine-metre whale carcass on Tuesday near Digby Neck, N.S.  

"Pretty sad, that is," Thibodeau said. 

He said it wasn't "fresh looking," likely flattened and pounded in the rough surf. Thibodeau said he didn't think it had been dead too long because there was no smell.

Reid said it would be difficult to determine details such as when the whale died. 

"For an animal like the humpback, determining the cause of death is a fairly labour-intensive process. We would have to do a complete necropsy, sample all the organs.

"We would look for the usual cause of death in these animals whether it's human interaction or look for something natural, whether it's biotoxins, that sort of thing."

Charles Thibodeau said the carcass was likely flattened and pounded in the rough surf. (Jennifer Hope Thibodeau and Charles Thibodeau)

Necropsy expensive

A resident of nearby Brier Island took basic measurements and observations about the dead whale, Reid said, but a full necropsy is neither easy nor cheap. 

"Funding to the get the heavy equipment down there to pull the animal apart, it is expensive and also where this animal is quite decomposed, there's really not going to be much left of its internal anatomy," said Reid.

Charles Thibodeau's wife, Jennifer Hope Thibodeau, said she was surprised to find the whale, given most have already left Canada's East Coast for warmer waters.

However dead whales washing up along Nova Scotia is not an uncommon occurrence. In October, one university biology class dissected a whale that washed up near Antigonish, N.S. 

Humpbacks whales usually migrate to Nova Scotia in the summer months to feed on abundant sea life in the Bay of Fundy, according to the federal Species At Risk Registry. They usually return to warm southern waters to breed and raise their young during the winter.

"It's kind of scary since all these things have been washing up on the beach over in St. Marys Bay and other places. It's really frightening," said Jennifer Hope Thibodeau.

Reid said judging by the whale's length, it's likely a junvenile that has been weaned from its mother but is not yet mature. (Jennifer Hope Thibodeau and Charles Thibodeau)

With files from Natalie Dobbin