January 10th, 2017 (Todd Masson). The whale that ended up in Terrebonne Parish’s Sister Lake last month was actually the fourth sperm whale to strand itself along the northern Gulf Coast in two months, according to a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Mandy Tumlin said the most recent stranding followed others in Florida on Oct. 18, the southwest Louisiana coast on Oct. 19 and another near Port Aransas, Texas, on Nov. 21. All were sperm whale calves in the same size range, she said.
On Dec. 1, anglers fishing near Turtle Bayou alerted department personnel about the presence of the whale, stranded on a mud flat in the area, while the 23 1/2-foot mammal was still alive. Tumlin and a team of biologists and agents rushed to the site.
“We were able to get a boat close to it and assess the animal for a while and make sure it had some mobility and would be able to potentially swim on its own,” she said.
Over cell phones, the biologists conferenced with whale biologists at NOAA and received permission to tow the whale into the deeper water of the bay.
“We were hoping it would just swim off, but after we removed the rope, the whale swam right back to the mud flat and re-stranded itself,” Tumlin said.
The animal was likely too weak to support its own weight.
“The thought is that there was definitely something wrong with it,” Tumlin said. “It swam into an area where it wouldn’t have to expend much energy to stay afloat or keep swimming.”
The team returned the next day to check on the whale, and it was still alive at that point, but by the following day, it had perished. Biologists conducted a necropsy and are awaiting results for both the Terrebonne Parish whale and the one found in October near Holly Beach.
“At this time, we do not know an exact cause of death,” Tumlin said. “We were able to obtain a full suite of sampling on both of these animals because they were in such good shape. They weren’t too decomposed.”
Tumlin is eager to get the results, but acknowledged they may be inconclusive.
“We’re working with our federal partners at NOAA to see if we can get an exact cause of death, but sometimes that’s not possible,” she said.
Scientists will be looking for, among other things, the presence of biotoxins, Tumlin said.
The Gulf of Mexico supports a thriving population of sperm whales that feast on squid in channels and trenches, Tumlin said.
“They don’t generally come close to shore, but we have had reports in the past of them feeding around the mouth of the (Mississippi River),” she said.
Tumlin asked boaters who encounter whales, even healthy ones in offshore waters, to report them to the department at 225-765-2800 or to Tumlin directly at 337-962-7092 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She noted, however, that boaters should give them their space since it is a federal crime to harass whales.