Sperm whale washes ashore, dies on Shell Island; necropsy planned
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Local wildlife experts are working to determine what caused a sperm whale to wash ashore on Shell Island.
According to Secret Holmes-Douglass, director of Gulf World Marine Institute, the whale stranded sometime Sunday afternoon. She learned of the incident at about 6 p.m. that day.
"The animal was severely emaciated," Holmes-Douglass said. "We get animals in poor body condition that are sometimes just skinny, but this animal was definitely emaciated."
Blair Mase, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, added that the female sperm whale was more than 28 feet long and estimated to weigh about 12,000 pounds. A healthy whale of that length should weigh about 15,000 pounds.
Despite social media comments from people who were surprised to see a whale in local waters, sperm whales, the largest toothed whale species, are commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico, Mase said.
She said that more than a dozen have stranded themselves off the Gulf Coast during the past decade. One of the most recent incidents occurred in Jensen Beach last month. It also was emaciated.
"These whales are very deep water species," Mase said. "It's not typical to see them close to shore or too close to land, so that could be why people are a bit surprised."
As of Tuesday morning, Mase and Holmes-Douglass said they didn't know what caused the animal to strand, but said it would undergo a necropsy later Tuesday.
They also said it was still alive when it showed up Sunday but died before experts responded Monday morning.
The animal was towed about six miles east near Tyndall Air Force Base.
"(It) was rolling in about 3 feet, maybe 4 feet of heavy surf, and it was in very poor condition," Mase said. "Typically when they end up on the beach, there's something happening. There would not have been any way for us to rescue the animal because it just was in that bad condition."
Once the necropsy is complete, the whale will be either towed offshore about 30 miles to decompose or be buried.
"It's been many years since we've dealt with a large whale," Holmes-Douglass said. "These strandings can be (caused) by anything. It could be contaminants, weather conditions, natural toxins. We haven't seen any signs of human interaction."