Harrison County

Melon-headed whale rescued alive off Cat Island. ‘This is a big break for scientists.’

Officials rescue melon-headed whale stranded on Cat Island

A young melon-headed whale was rescued by the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies on Thursday after known after being found stranded on Cat Island. It's very rare to find a whale stranded, officials said.
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A young melon-headed whale was rescued by the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies on Thursday after known after being found stranded on Cat Island. It's very rare to find a whale stranded, officials said.

The first live melon-headed whale rescued in this area during a record year for marine mammal deaths could provide the best clues yet about what is killing the animals.

The juvenile whale’s skin is covered with shark bites and also has skin lesions.

Freshwater lesions have been found on dolphin carcasses that have washed ashore in record numbers this year after the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway in Louisiana. The spillway released trillions of gallons of Mississippi River water into the estaurine system that empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Moby Solangi, whose Institute for Marine Mammal Studies retrieved the whale, said it is too soon to say if the whale’s lesions are from fresh water. But he said discovery of the live animal is huge.

“It’s the only marine mammal this year that we have recovered alive, at least in Mississippi and Alabama,” said Solangi, whose institute oversees recovery and examination of dolphins beached in both states. “It’s of huge importance that we now have a live animal that might reveal what I’ve always said is the black box, that might give us some clues.”

“We’ll be able to say this may be what was going on with this particular animal and, if possible, other species. This is a big break for scientists.”

The federal government stepped in to investigate in June because 279 dolphin strandings had been recorded since February, compared to 57 in average years and 87 for previous high-mortality years.

The juvenile male is between two and four years old and weighs 185 pounds. He is about three feet long. The male whales reach maturity at 12 to 15 years and can grow to 9 feet in length, according to the NOAA Fisheries.

Solangi said a fisherman spotted the whale on the beach on the north side of Cat Island. IMMS immediately dispatched two boats to pick up the animal. When the crew approached, they were excited to see the whale’s tail was still moving.

A veterinarian immediately worked to stabilize the whale before whisking him ashore aboard the fastest boat.

At IMMS, Solangi said, numerous samples have been taken from the whale, which is on a liquid diet. Solangi said it is too soon to name the animal, but he has a better than 50 percent chance of survival.

This is only the second melon-headed whale he has seen in his 40 years of marine research in Gulfport. He said the marine mammals are deepwater creatures usually found further out in the Gulf.

Solangi said the whales are usually in groups. He believes the juvenile whale’s mother must have sickened and died, leaving him to vulnerable to predators.

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