Rare Pigmy Sperm Whale Washes Up In Sandwich

A closeup of the adult male pygmy sperm whale that came ashore at Town Neck Beach. The marine animal is a rarity on the Cape.COURTESY DONALD R. HELFRICH - A closeup of the adult male pygmy sperm whale that came ashore at Town Neck Beach. The marine animal is a rarity on the Cape.

Taking his regular morning jog along Town Neck Beach 10 days ago, Donald R. Helfrich of Forestdale was greeted with an uncommon sight. The 78-year-old from Jeannes Way came upon a large sea creature that had beached itself at the water’s edge. Mr. Helfrich said that he was alerted to the creature’s presence by a passing fisherman, who said there was a shark on the beach. The animal was about 20 to 30 yards ahead, and, at first sight, it looked like a shark, Mr. Helfrich said.

“There was a black fluke up in the air, so it was very shark-like to my eye,” he said.

Mr. Helfrich, who is staying at a home on Town Neck while his Forestdale home is being worked on, said he took a couple of pictures and did not think much more about the creature until a couple of hours later when there was quite a bit of activity out on the beach.

“My wife noticed someone with a clipboard, and there were people in orange suits doing some kind of examination. That took me back to the beach,” he said.

The people on the beach turned out to be a crew from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the beached creature was determined to be not a shark, but an adult male pygmy sperm whale. Mr. Helfrich said that the IFAW people told him that it was only the ninth pygmy sperm whale found on Cape Cod in the last 15 years.

“So, it was more significant than just another fish washed up on shore,” he said.

Mr. Helfrich estimated the size of the whale to be roughly 10 feet long. Internet sites show that, at maturity, pygmy sperm whales grow to a length of 11 feet and weigh 880 pounds.

In an e-mailed response to questions from the Enterprise, IFAW’s media relations manager Kerry A. Branon confirmed that pygmy sperm whale sightings in Cape waters are rare. Ms. Branon noted that the species is “ more common in Southern East Coast and Gulf of Mexico waters.”

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Ms. Branon said that her agency received a report of a stranded and dead dolphin or possible whale near the jetty at Town Neck Beach just before 10 AM Tuesday, October 29, on its hotline.

A local IFAW volunteer was sent to the scene to check on the report and to take photos.

IFAW was able to determine the species from the photos, and an IFAW team was sent to investigate and perform a necropsy on the beach to determine the cause of the whale’s death, she said. Permission to perform the beach dissection was given by Mark S. Galkowski, director of Sandwich’s department of natural resources.

Ms. Branon said that externally the whale had long parallel rake marks, some lacerations, and abrasions along its dorsal and ventral surfaces. Internally, it appeared to have heart problems, “potential cardiomyopathy,” she said.

“Numerous tissue and organ samples were collected for virology, toxicology, and bacterial presence. Cause of death is currently undetermined, pending the histopathological review,” she said.

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