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Volunteers dissect baleen whale (video)

By BY DIANNA WRAY - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Dec. 19, 2012 at 6:19 a.m.
Updated Dec. 21, 2012 at 6:21 a.m.

Volunteers attempt to move a baleen whale more inland from where it washed up on Matagorda Beach. They couldn't budge it.

To help

• To get more information about the Texas Marine Mammal Strandings Network, click here.

• To report a marine mammal stranding, call 1-800-962-6625.

MATAGORDA - It lay Wednesday on the beach, the rope they used to haul it in from the surf still tied around its tail.

The 43-foot-long baleen whale lay on its side, a mass of flesh, blubber and muscle.

When the surf rushed in, its mouth slowly opened and closed, but the rib cage stayed still and the tail, about 5 feet wide, was flat, the powerful tail muscles that once thrust the creature through the ocean now useless.

Heidi Whitehead, the executive director of Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, stood before the whale's midsection, and there was the glint of a knife as she cut into the whale's flesh, just below the rib cage.

Whitehead's face was blank as she worked the knife.

They had received reports of a whale Tuesday in shallow water near Surfside Beach, and then learned that a whale's carcass had been found in the surf near Matagorda. The smell is noxious and the body is dauntingly huge, but she's been doing this for 12 years. On Wednesday morning, as the sun rose, there was not a hint of hesitation as she worked to take the samples that might tell why this baleen whale died.

Whales don't often wash up on the Texas coast, especially whales of this size. The last whale beaching was two years ago, a fin whale found on Mustang Island.

"They're out there, but it's very unusual to see large mammals like this actually wash into shore," Whitehead said.

The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network is a nonprofit organization that works to help stranded marine mammals and dispose of the bodies of dead ones along the Texas coast.

The organization, the only one in the state certified to do this kind of work, functions off grants, donations and volunteers. Whitehead is the only full-time employee. When she learns of a mammal in need of rescue or disposal, she sends out the word and hopes volunteers will be able to respond.

However, the organization is facing some potential challenges as funding has become harder to come by during the economic recession. Now, Whitehead said, the organization is facing potential cuts to its funding with the coming federal budget.

"These volunteers, donations and grants - that's how this organization runs," Whitehead said, glancing at the volunteers who dropped everything to come help her take samples and dismember a whale on the Wednesday before Christmas.

Nine volunteers gathered on the beach as the sun came up over the water to help conduct a necropsy and then dispose of the whale.

They faced a big job, literally. They had to tie a second rope around the whale's tail after the first one snapped from the strain of hauling the animal out of the surf to shore. The whale had to be taken apart piece by piece, but before that, they would take samples of each organ, pull out the ear bones and anything else they could take from the body to test and look for a cause of death.

The whale already had severe decomposition by the time they got to the body and began the necropsy. It may take months to finish running the tests and it's possible the answer will prove elusive, that the cause of the whale's death will go unanswered, Whitehead said.

They'll also run a genetic test to find out what species of baleen whale it is.

Even slumped on its side, chunks of flesh missing from shark bites, its one visible eye a slit toward the sky, people stopped to stare at the wonder of the creature.

Debbie Rodgers motored her truck up to the site where the whale lay on its side.

"Poor thing," she said, shaking her head slowly.

Kay Zavala, of Matagorda, got out of her truck and stood just behind the volunteers, taking in the sight.

"I'd like to know how old it was, if it died of old age or if it was something else," Zavala said.

While people came and went, the volunteers worked throughout the morning, collecting samples and cutting the whale into sections to be hauled off.

It was messy work and their gloved hands were soon flecked with bits of blood and flesh.

Manny Alaniz adjusted his face mask as he leaned over the animal, sawing at the flesh just below the rib cage. Whitehead has been doing this so long, she doesn't notice the smell any more, but it's a powerful odor that fills the nostrils of the uninitiated.

As he worked, Alaniz avoided thinking of what he was doing, dismembering the animal to make it easier to take samples and to haul off the beach. Instead, he thought about the anatomy of the whale, watching as the intestines spilled out, blue ropes of the digestive tract as big around as his arm, and wondering if he was right about where the pancreas would be, if he had guessed correctly the proper way to tie off a length of intestines and take a sample for the study.

He was supposed to be Christmas shopping, but when he heard about the whale beaching, nothing could keep him away from the beach.

"How many people can say they've done this?" he said, gesturing to the whale. "Most people can't even say they've ever seen one, dead or alive."

Donna Jones walked away from the whale as Whitehead and the volunteers worked to get farther into the internal organs. These things can be hard for volunteers, unlike rescuing stranded mammals they're still able to help.

Even this moment of hacking and flesh could be worthwhile if it yields some information about marine animals, volunteer Barbara Clay said.

"You've got to take the good with the bad," Clay said. "We still have a purpose in gathering info. Hopefully, we'll find out why the whale died, and it will give us some information that will help us learn more."

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