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A Whale of a Find: Rare Discovery Sets the Stage for Unprecedented Research

Stranded Whale on STJ Offers Research Opportunities

By Sarah ChiChi Larsen and Nico Thomas (special submission)

Tail of the whale-photo credit: Sarah ChiChi Larsen

(St. John & St. Thomas, October 18, 2023) – On Tuesday morning, October 17, 2023, St. John locals discovered an unusual whale species.

photo courtesy of the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies program.

The sizeable dead animal was rescued and immediately brought to the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) for a necropsy. According to animal research experts, the purpose of a necropsy is typically to determine the cause of death or extent of disease. This involves a careful process of dissection, observation, interpretation, and documentation.

While it is believed to be a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, the definitive confirmation awaits genetic analysis from tissue samples collected during recovery. Currently, personnel from the UVI, marine researchers, and students are working to collect tissue samples from the whale.

UVI, well known for its Marine Biology Program, was contacted and promptly contacted local and federal partners to ensure all legal protocols were followed. Subsequently, a collaborative effort involving cruise operators, university personnel, and marine researchers was initiated to bring the whale to the university for an animal autopsy.

This extraordinary discovery [provides] an opportunity to learn more about these elusive creatures.

With the whale now in their keeping, researchers have a lot of work to do. This extraordinary discovery has set the stage for unprecedented research and an opportunity to learn more about these elusive creatures.

Moriah Sevier, a Coral disease treatment specialist at UVI, explains, ‘They were tissue samples taken from parts of the whales’ body such as the central portion and the tail so that they can be sent up to federal partners in D.C. and Puerto Rico so that they can do the proper analysis to determine the cause of death.'”

To avoid disturbing swimmers or attracting large animals near the shore, the whale’s remains will be transported to another location.

Size 8 shoes compared to length/width of tail.

There, nature’s scavengers, including crustaceans and other marine life, will aid in the natural decomposition process, consuming the flesh and soft tissues. Once this process is complete, scientists will retrieve the bones, allowing for a comprehensive specimen study. Sevier further emphasizes 

the rarity of this discovery. Cuvier’s Beaked Whales are known for their incredible diving abilities, reaching depths of up to two miles. According to recent studies, the Cuvier’s Beaked Whale is the new champion of deep-sea diving.

…encounters with these whales are exceptionally unusual in the region of the USVI

Interestingly, Puerto Rico possesses the world’s second-deepest trench, making it a potential habitat for these creatures. Despite their non-rare status in the broader context, encounters with these whales are exceptionally unusual in the region of the USVI.

This marks the first opportunity for researchers to conduct a necropsy on a stranded whale since the 90s.

Researchers are interested in what might have caused bruising on the head and around the eyes of the whale,

Researchers at the marine dock explained that they hope to “perform a computed tomography (CT) scan on the head to investigate the natural cause of the bruising around the eyes.”  Initially, no noticeable propeller scars or external damage were visible

Discovery of teeth which prove it was a male whale. photo courtesy of the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies program.

They verified that the whale is male because it has teeth. Scientists have determined that only males in this whale species have teeth which they use to fight other males.

This procedure will provide insights into the nature and cause of the observed bruising, shedding light on the possible events leading to the whale’s stranding.

This rare find has stirred the scientific community and kindled the local population’s curiosity.

The unfolding research promises to deepen our understanding of these deep-diving creatures.

As the genetic analysis progresses and the necropsy unfolds, scientists anticipate that this Cuvier’s Beaked Whale will reveal valuable insights into its life, habits, and the unique challenges it faces in the deep waters surrounding the Caribbean.


NOTE: Dr. Paul Jobsis (the Director of the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies program at UVI), and all other UVI faculty and staff are following guidance from Territorial and Federal entities that oversee marine mammal-related strandings and research.

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  1. Derrick Honore says:

    Great reporting.

  2. Sydney T. says:

    This was a very interesting read. I wonder what the cause of death was, perhaps it has something to do with the location it was found in.

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