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What we know about the recent whale deaths in Hampton Roads

Virginia Aquarium officials assess a humpback that washed ashore at the Oceanfront in early March. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Aquarium)
Virginia Aquarium officials assess a humpback that washed ashore at the Oceanfront in early March. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Aquarium)

Eight dead whales have washed ashore in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina over the past two months.

They spanned four different species, including the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The local fatalities fit into a concerning coastwide trend stretching back to 2017. Several whale species have been dying at unusually high rates in the Atlantic Ocean, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls “unusual mortality events.” 

Federal scientists suspect that human interactions with whales are mostly to blame, from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. NOAA emphasizes there is no evidence linking whale deaths to the offshore wind industry.

Officials have not finished investigating many of the deaths in our region. But here’s what WHRO knows right now.

Virginia Beach

On March 3, a juvenile male humpback whale washed ashore near 25th Street at the Oceanfront after being seen floating near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It was 32 feet long and weighed an estimated 32,000 pounds, according to the Virginia Aquarium.

The next day, another juvenile male humpback stranded at False Cape State Park, about 27 feet long and 21,800 pounds. 

Virginia Beach aquarium officials took samples and performed necropsies on both humpbacks but have not yet determined their cause of death. They sent the tissue samples to outside labs which could delay the process, according to spokesperson Kristina Scott.

Both whales had some “abnormal skin lesions,” and healed scars indicating previous entanglements in fishing gear, Scott said. 

“The entanglement scars are an important reminder that we share the ocean, and our activities can impact the ocean environment and its inhabitants,” she said.

On March 30, a company conducting Mid-Atlantic whale surveys for the Navy spotted an endangered North Atlantic right whale floating about 50 miles east of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. 

It was identified as a female first seen in 1989, a mother who recently gave birth to her sixth calf, according to NOAA.

Officials towed the whale to shore for a necropsy, made difficult by weather and because the carcass had been scavenged by sharks. 

A few days later, NOAA said preliminary findings showed the whale had catastrophic injuries to its spine, “consistent with blunt force trauma from a vessel strike prior to death.”

The agency’s Office of Law Enforcement is investigating the incident.

whale vertebrae
Photo courtesy of NOAA 
A fractured vertebra from the back of the North Atlantic right whale found dead in Virginia Beach.

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with only about 350 total whales left, including fewer than 70 actively reproductive females.

That makes the loss of a reproductive female “particularly devastating to the population,” NOAA said. Officials don’t expect the whale’s calf, which hasn’t been spotted, to survive without its mother. 

Eastern Shore

On March 16, a dead female minke whale stranded at Wallops Island in Accomack County. 

The Virginia Aquarium responded and is still evaluating the case, Scott said. Tissue samples have been sent to an offsite lab.

Outer Banks

On March 5, a 26-foot female minke whale washed up on the four-wheel-drive beach just north of Corolla. 

A team of local scientists performed a necropsy on the beach because the whale was too large to move, according to North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology.

Immediate results did not show any evidence it died from human causes, like ship strikes, CMAST said. The whale had signs of a bacterial infection, but more research and testing is necessary before officials determine the official cause of death.

Infectious disease is listed as a threat to minkes in the ongoing mortality event.

On March 8, two dwarf sperm whales were found dead on the Outer Banks, believed to be a mother and her offspring.

The female washed up in Nags Head and was found to be pregnant, with an intact two-foot fetus. A male juvenile dwarf sperm whale washed up alive a few miles south near Jennette’s Pier, but died shortly afterward. 

It’s not yet clear what killed the sperm whales. Officials suspect the offspring was too young to survive alone, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

Most recently, a live humpback whale was reported on April 13 about 150 yards offshore of Rodanthe, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Carolina.  A local fisherman spotted it entangled in fishing gear.

A few days later, the 31-foot juvenile female stranded at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge with gear twisted around its mouth and pectoral fin. 

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is investigating due to the presence of fishing gear.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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