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Examination Continues into Cause of Whale’s Death on Martha’s Vineyard

February 05, 2024

North Atlantic right whale on Martha’s Vineyard had a chronic entanglement and was seen in poor health before its death. Experts are examining the rope and other samples collected from the whale.

deceased female North Atlantic right whale Deceased female North Atlantic right whale. Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute/Michael Moore. Taken under NOAA Permit # 24359.

Update: Rope Removed from North Atlantic Right Whale #5120 Determined to be from Maine

A greenish piece of rope lays on a white piece of paper. A black binder above it has a label reading "E17-22 Right whale #5120" and below it is a ruler.
One section of rope with purple zip tie nub that was entangled on North Atlantic right whale #5120. Credit: NOAA Fisheries
A twisted piece of rope on a white piece of paper. It has a foot-long purple zip tie attached. A black binder has the label E17-22 Right whale #5120.
Another section of rope that was entangled around North Atlantic right whale #5120; this one has a full 1-foot purple zip tie. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Based upon our analysis of the gear, including the purple markings on the rope recovered from North Atlantic right whale #5120, NOAA Fisheries has concluded that the rope is consistent with the rope used in Maine state water trap/pot buoy lines. We have been in consultation with our New England state resource management partners, and they have viewed the gear.

As of today, the full necropsy results are still pending. The NOAA Office of Law Enforcement investigation remains open.

Long pieces of rope laid out in long lines in a parking spot with a binder behind them that reads "E17-22 Right whale #5120"
All of the rope that was examined laid out in a parking lot. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

A closeup of a whale's tail with a rope entangled in it; flesh has been worn away by the rope.
A closeup of a whale's tail with a rope entangled in it; flesh has been worn away by the rope. Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/Michael Moore

On January 28, 2024, NOAA Fisheries was notified of a deceased female North Atlantic right whale near Joseph Sylvia State Beach on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. We worked closely with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Stranding Network partners, and local responders to recover the carcass and conduct a necropsy

Preliminary observations indicated the presence of rope entangled near the whale’s tail. State law enforcement officials collected some of the rope and turned it over to NOAA’s Office Law Enforcement. It is now being examined by gear experts. 

Whale Identified as #5120

Last week, scientists at the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life reviewed several images of the dead North Atlantic right whale. They matched it to whale #5120 in the right whale catalog based on clear matching features, such as callosity patterns and markings. This right whale, the only known calf of Squilla (#3720), was born during the 2021 calving season. 

Necropsy Confirms Chronic Entanglement

Necropsy (animal autopsy) of North Atlantic right whale #5120.
Necropsy (animal autopsy) of North Atlantic right whale #5120. Credit: NOAA Fisheries. NOAA Fisheries Permit #24539

A stranding response team completed the necropsy of North Atlantic right whale #5120 on February 1, 2024. From the necropsy, experts confirmed a chronic entanglement, with rope deeply embedded in the tail, and thin body condition. The necropsy showed no evidence of blunt force trauma. Cause of death is pending further histological and diagnostic testing of collected samples, which can take weeks to complete. We will share more information as it is available.

Large whale experts at the International Fund for Animal Welfare led the necropsy, with the assistance of more than 20 biologists from:

  • Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
  • Atlantic Marine Conservation Society
  • Whale Dolphin Conservation
  • New England Aquarium
  • Center for Coastal Studies
  • Marine Mammals of Maine
  • Virginia Aquarium
  • Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative

Previous Entanglements

Aerial survey teams had previously seen right whale #5120 several times with entanglements, including August 2022 and January 2023

Whale #5120 was last seen in June 2023 by Northeast Fisheries Science Center aerial observers, 60 miles northeast of Shippagan, New Brunswick. She was feeding with other whales. Her overall condition had declined and the wounds from the wraps of rope at the peduncle appeared to be more severe. No trailing line or buoys were seen. 

Studies suggest that more than 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once. About 60 percent have been entangled multiple times. Entangling rope can cut into a whale’s body, cause serious injuries, and result in infections and mortality. Even if gear is shed or removed through disentanglement efforts, the time spent entangled can severely stress a whale, weaken it, and prevent it from feeding. It can sap the energy it needs to swim, feed, and reproduce.

Last updated by Office of Communications on February 14, 2024