Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA permit #20556

Several customers have inquired about the deceased Right Whale that was discovered in January, and pulled ashore in the area of Little Island Park in Sandbridge. A necropsy (animal autopsy) was organized by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program and overseen by NOAA Fisheries. After it was complete, the whale was buried on the beach. Reports suggest that the whale’s death was due to entanglement in fishing gear.

Questions from our customers ranged from basic logistics of the operation, to what exactly happens during a whale necropsy, to health concerns of buried whales on a public beach. None of us at Surf and Adventure have a biology degree, so we reached out to the folks at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center for their expertise on the matter. A huge shout out to Matt Klepeisz at the aquarium for his generosity and time in putting us in touch with the correct people. Also, thanks go out to Mark Swingle, Director of Research & Conservation, and Susan Barco PhD, Senior Research Scientist for providing the answers to our questions. We hope you find the following as informative and interesting as we do…

  • S&A: A customer was concerned about possible bacteria leaching from a buried whale. This doesn’t seem like a concern to us, but what can we tell customers?
  • Aquarium: The Aquarium’s Stranding Response Program has been burying dead whales on beaches for more than forty years. Whales are buried deeply and as high up on the beach as possible so they do not resurface with beach erosion. In that time, we haven’t documented or received reports of any health or any other issues. There have been a number of studies that assess leachate from disposal sites, however leachate from a burial site is extremely slow and likely flows down into bottom sediment.


  • S&A: Is burying whales on beaches protocol for all beaches where whales wash up, or is Sandbridge different because we are so close to a remote area (Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge)?
  • Aquarium: It is very common practice nationally to bury whales. Whales are buried deeply, and as high up on the beach as possible so they do not resurface with beach erosion. Additionally, it returns the nutrients to the coastal environment rather than isolating them in a landfill.


  • S&A: How do you handle crowd control/questions during a necropsy?
  • Aquarium: We typically walk around the outside edge of the crowd and explain what people are seeing, what we know, and what will happen. We then allow them the opportunity to ask anything they would like to know.


  • S&A: Is there a standard procedure/process for conducting a whale necropsy, or is it specific for each individual case?
  • Aquarium: In a necropsy, the first goal is visual inspection and documentation of the animal. After that, samples are taken (whenever possible) from tissue and organs. Dissection continues, all while someone documents, in hopes that we can find something to help explain the stranding or cause of death. Determining cause of death is not always possible due to deterioration or lack of immediately visible causation, so we do send samples to a histopathologist to be studied.


  • S&A: Are the findings used for ongoing research, and does the public have access to this information?
  • Aquarium: Findings are used for on-going research. If members of the public are interested in learning the results of a necropsy, they can email marketing@virginiaaquarium.comIf results are available and able to be shared, someone from our team will try to provide the information requested. Sometimes, due to timeline or open investigations, results may not be available to share.


  • S&A: Are there necropsy specialists who only work in this field, or are these general procedures that anyone can be trained to perform?
  • Aquarium: Our Stranding Response Program is comprised of trained staff and volunteers, however all necropsies are overseen and orchestrated by a professional necropsy coordinator and carefully trained team members are responsible for the dissection and sampling.

L. Todd Spencer (Virginin-Pilot)

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