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Experts begin necropsy on right whale to determine cause of death

Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, director of the Atlantic Region of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, collects samples from a dead right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in a recent handout photo.
Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, director of the Atlantic Region of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, collects samples from a dead right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in a recent handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO- Marine Animal Response Society

Marine mammal experts carved up a 14-metre right whale Thursday on the red sandy shores of P.E.I. in the hopes of finding out what killed the endangered whale and at least five others this month.

It was not a pleasant task.

“Once the necropsy begins, it’s bad. The smell is unlike anything else. You can’t really compare it,” said Jarrett Corke of the Marine Animal Response Society.

Corke said the necropsy – an animal autopsy – started Thursday morning in Norway, a tiny hamlet near P.E.I.’s northwestern tip, after the Canadian Coast Guard and federal Fisheries officials beached the whale a day earlier.

READ MORE: Researchers hope to find reason for right whale deaths as they prepare to tow carcass to P.E.I.

“We’re doing the necropsy with the expressed purpose of trying to determine why we have six confirmed dead right whales in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence,” said Corke in a phone interview as experts worked on the carcass nearby.

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“We have an excavator next to the right whale that’s assisting the team in helping to remove chunks of blubber to expose some of the internal organs and muscle tissue. Some of our team are on top of the animal and some are on the sides… They’re looking for anything, because we don’t know the cause of death.”

Photos of the scene showed sliced sections of blubber folded out from the whale and what appeared to be its flipper being held up by the excavator. About a dozen people in chest waders were scattered around the mammal, which was lying in red dirt and grass under expansive blue skies.

Corke said they hoped to finish the necropsy Thursday or Friday.

READ MORE: Six right whales dead in Gulf of St. Lawrence

He said plans are being made to bring at least one more of the endangered animals ashore for examination after six carcasses were found floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“They still are planning on bringing in one or two more right whales, but the details are not firmed up,” he said.

Officials want to determine if boat strikes, fishing gear or a possible toxic algal bloom could be to blame for the deaths of the whales, spotted near Quebec’s Magdalen Islands.

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The society said experts needed to move quickly before the animal decomposes further, which can make it more difficult to determine the cause of death.

It said only an internal exam can confirm what may have killed the whales.