Right whale found off Virginia Beach coast died of ‘catastrophic injuries’ from vessel strike, NOAA says

A North Atlantic right whale found dead off the Virginia Beach coast had “catastrophic injuries” and vertebrae fractures, according to a necropsy.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that preliminary findings from the necropsy, or animal autopsy, showed the female had a dislocation of her spine and fractures to all vertebrae in the lower back.

“These findings are consistent with blunt force trauma from a vessel strike prior to death,” the update reads. “Additional histological and diagnostic testing of samples is pending.”

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement is investigating.

Sarah Sharp, Animal Rescue Veterinarian with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, helped with NOAA’s necropsy. She said the whale’s death from likely was “agonizing but relatively quick.” Because a majority of right whale deaths have been attributed to vessel strikes or entanglement, NOAA and other environmental groups have advocated for slower boat speeds.

“The choice is simple: vessels either slow down or the North Atlantic right whale goes extinct,” she said.

The NOAA reported the death Tuesday, but the carcass was found Saturday by a company conducting Mid-Atlantic whale surveys for the Navy. The whale, identified as female #1950, was seen floating about 50 miles offshore from Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The whale is a recent mother, giving birth to her sixth calf this winter, and NOAA reports that her first sighting was in 1989. Her baby was not seen near her carcass, and NOAA reports it has not been seen since Feb. 16 off Amelia Island in Florida.

The calf is considered a “seriously injured dependent calf” because of its mother’s death. According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a nonprofit that focuses on the longevity of whale and dolphin species, it likely will not survive without its mother.

NOAA researchers have documented the years-long mortality event among North Atlantic right whales. The species is approaching extinction, and according to data, there are roughly 360 individuals remaining, including fewer than 70 reproductively active females. The number of new calves born in recent years has been “below average.”

This death marked the sixth dead whale in the region to wash ashore on local beaches this year. The first was a young humpback whale on the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, followed by another humpback whale the next day near False Cape State Park. Three others were found on the Outer Banks.

Eliza Noe, eliza.noe@virginiamedia.com