Whale of a burial
Its burial took place in the sand dunes of Port Aransas.
A 48-foot whale that washed up dead on the beach just south of Access Road 1 on Monday, Feb. 8, attracted a crowd of more than 200 onlookers as wildlife officials probed the carcass and workers used heavy equipment to drag the huge
‘ creature into the dunes for burial.
“This is a very unusual event,” said Tony Amos, the Port Aransas coordinator of the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Exactly what species the whale was and why it died were unknown, said Amos, who also is director of the Animal Rehabilitation Keep, or ARK, in Port Aransas.
What is known is that the animal was of the baleen variety, a type of whale that includes blue, fin, sei, brydes and minke whales, Amos said.
Baleen whales are distinguished by the fringed plates of fingernail-like mate- rial, called baleen, that are attached to their upper jaws. When it eats, the whale takes in big gulps of water, then spews the water back out and uses the baleen to hold back the tiny sea creatures that are the whale’s diet.
An animal believed to be the same whale was spotted floating, dead, in the gulf an estimated 13 miles off Sabine Pass about 10 days ago, said Lea Walker, the Corpus Christi regional coordinator for the stranding network.
Wildlife officials were able to determine that the whale was a female, but it was impossible to immediately identify the species because the body was so decomposed and chewed-up by other marine creatures.
The whale’s dorsal and pectoral fins were collected as samples that might help experts determine the whale’s species.
Wildlife officials also examined the contents of the animal’s gut to see what it had been eating, but they found mostly decomposed material that wasn’t identifi- able, Amos said.
The last stranding of a baleen whale on a Texas shore took place in 1989 on the Matagorda peninsula, Amos said. It was a young animal that died on the beach, and it had a large amount of plastic debris in its belly, he said.
Amos estimated that the whale that washed up on shore Monday weighed 12 tons. That presented a challenge for city workers intent on getting the odorous body off the beach and buried.
Three pieces of heavy equipment were used to push and pull the remains out of the water, across the beach and into the first row of dunes.
Equipment operators included Mayor Claude Brown. He and his workers donated their time in the effort. Island Construction also provided workers and equipment at no charge to the city.
Brown and Interim City Manager Dave Parsons directed efforts at the scene.
“I thought it went really great,” Parsons said. “I thought all the entities out there did just a great job, between the ARK (Animal Rehabilitation Keep) people and the city public works crews, the police keeping people back and traffic moving and Claude’s crew, and Island Construction coming out and helping. It was a big, coordinated effort, and it went perfectly.”
Two front-end loaders made a 30- foot-wide cut that was 12 to 15 feet deep in the front row of dunes, and the body was placed there. Wildlife officials conducted a necropsy – an autopsy for animals – and took samples in a process that lasted through much of the day. The actual burial didn’t get finished until the next day.
Some work in sand dunes requires a special permit reviewed by the General Land Office and issued by the Port Aransas City Council. But the work to bury the whale was allowed under an existing permit, Parsons said.