Living & Eating on Long Island's East End 

                        Excursions:   A Whale of a Tale   

My name is Monique.
I'm a 2-time Emmy Award winning TV Producer.
Having been in the business for over 15 years I've produced my share of live tv cooking segments, but never had much time to devote to cooking myself.

Last year when I got married, I moved out of New York City to the east end of Long Island, to ...wait for it...The Hamptons.

Now before you roll your eyes, there's more to the Hamptons than mansions and celebrities.

The Hamptons have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, miles of productive farmland, plus a rich clamming history that continues to this day.

When I moved out east and realized I was surrounded, not just by the bounty of the sea, but also local farms and vineyards, I couldn't wait to explore and sample my new environment.

That's what this blog is about.  Cooking, living, exploring and sharing those experiences.

You'll notice that my blog is a little of this and a little of that, kind of like a potluck meal.

The phone call came at 8:30 AM.  "A whale washed up on the beach this morning."

I threw on some clothes and made my way down to Quogue Beach, near Triton Lane.  Climbing over sand dunes, stumbling on still sleepy legs, I could see the whale up ahead lying in the surf, as the water churned round it, gently pushing it back and forth. A Southampton Bay Constable stood nearby, his SUV parked on the sand.

As I came nearer, the whale's sheer size became more apparent. This was no puny animal. Stretching some 30-35 feet from nose to tail, the animal lay on it's back in the water, it's large swollen belly facing the sky. Resembling a giant deflated Macy's Thanksgiving balloon, it now lay broken in the surf.

It was hard to tell what type of whale from that position, but my guess was either Right Whale or Humpback.  A photographer from the Southampton Press was also there taking pictures. We discussed the whale as we snapped away, trying to stay out of each other's shots. I learned later that the whale was a humpback, which is an endangered species and therefore a federally protected animal.

The plan, according to the Town of Southhampton, was to dispose of the dead whale by burying it up on the beach, but before that there had to be a necropsy to determine cause of death.  A necropsy is  a postmortem examination or autopsy and would be performed the next day by The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation is a not-for-profit organization that operates the New York State Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program on Long Island. Their primary mission is to preserve and protect our marine environment through education, rehabilitation, and research. 

The next morning when I arrived on the beach I was greeted by a scene of organized chaos. Parked on Triton Lane, a small road that runs to the beach sat a giant bulldozer atop an even bigger payloader. Half a dozen men were working to maneuver it, while others directed traffic around the leviathan.

Back on the beach, I could see the whale, still resting in the surf, but now a crowd of 20-30 onlookers surrounded it. Men, women and children taking pictures of the dead whale.

A small group of young people in red sweatshirts moved around the whale taking photographs and measurements. These were members of the Riverhead Foundation, as well as students with Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, performing the beginning of their forensic examination. 

As they examined the whale, the bulldozer finally made it's appearance on the sand and slowly approached the crowd. 
Bay Constables helped move the crowd back, so no one was run over, but as soon as the 'dozer was in place, the crowd swarmed around it.

The men wrapped chains around the whale's tail to pull the animal out of the water. It would then be dragged up near the high sand dunes, where it would be dissected into smaller pieces and then buried.

We all held our breath as bulldozer backed away slowly with the whale attached. The mammoth animal began to move slowly onto the beach, but then it stopped suddenly, even while the 'dozer kept going. The giant tail had ripped off of the quickly deteriorating beast. Now what?

With no tail to use as a handle anymore, the bulldozer now had to resort to rolling the giant animal over and over up onto the beach. Finally it came to rest about 20-30 yards from the dunes. Here was where the scientists would perform their tests, but first they had to identify the whale.

Using the bucket of the bulldozer, one of the volunteers, a young woman, stepped into the bucket and was lifted up by the bulldozer above the now detached tail laying on the beach. From that perspective she could get a wider view of the whale's identifying flukes. Each whale's tail flukes is different and used to identify them out in the ocean.

After that, the researchers began cutting into the animal to take small samples. At this point it became very clear to me NOT to stand downwind of the animal, because the smell was hideous!  Unfortunately it was a great vantage point to take pictures because no one else was standing there, so I held my breath as long as I could before stepping out of the smelly zone.

As the volunteers performed their tests, a smaller group of scientists were suiting up in what appeared to be hospital scrubs before they approached the whale and began making more decisive cuts to the animal's body. They seemed to be cutting into specific parts of the animal, then attached what appeared to be the whale's jaw to the bulldozer.

At that point the 'dozer began backing away from the animal and with it came the whale's skin. The volunteers had made strategic cuts to the animal, making it easier to remove the skin. With the animal's jaw attached to the machine, the bulldozer was literally peeling the whale like a banana. It was a bizarre, but fascinating procedure, as the heavy, blubbery skin was peeled back, inch-by-inch, then foot-by-foot, to reveal an inside-out whale, kind of like pulling your sock inside out.

At this point I had stepped much farther away, about 30 feet, to avoid the stench, but even from there I could see a lot of the animal's meat and muscle was already a gray-green color, which I later learned was a clear sign of decay. This meant the whale had been dead for some time and had not died recently.  It may have been floating in the ocean for a while before finally washing ashore.

Now that the whale was basically unrecognizable, I didn't particularly want to see it cut up into chunks, which is what happened after the Foundation did their tests. The bulldozer then dug a deep hole in the sand and the whale was buried right there on Quogue Beach.

Later I would learn that whale was very nearly a celebrity in the whale research world.  Named Istar, after a fertility goddess, the female humpback whale was believed to have been at least 41 years old and had given birth to 11 calves, more than any other known humpback whale.

How did they know all that? Scientists have been studying whales since the 1970s and Istar had been known to them since the late 70s.  She was identified by matching the pigmentation and shape of her ventral flukes to images archived with the  Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog.

The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies has also tracked individual humpback whales since the 1970s. Their catalog contains data on more than 2,500 individual whales. Everything from age, gender, reproduction, behavior and human impacts are collected and utilized to increase scientific knowledge and help the management of this endangered species.

Details of the Riverhead Foundation's forensic examination are still coming in. So far they've learned that the whale suffered extensive cranial fractures, which could mean it was struck by  a ship. But as to whether the ship killed the whale or it was already dead before being struck is still unknown.  Further analysis of the skull fractures are being performed and if I learn more I will post it here.

Website Builder