Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a 36-foot-long humpback whale in the Amazon jungle, and experts don’t know how it got there! The tremendous creature, weighing an estimated 10 tonnes, was found dead in the jungle on Friday Feb. 22, 2019, about 50 feet from the sea and a considerable distance from its natural habitat.
The body of the whale was discovered in a swampy mangrove on the island of Marajo near the Araruna Beach, at the mouth of the Amazon River. But it’s unlikely that the whale ended up there of its own volition: scientists are saying that it’s more likely the creature died at sea and was thrown inland by rough currents and high tides. Video footage shows the whale surrounded by trees, with no visible injuries, thus no obvious cause of death.
A research team has traveled to inspect the remains and gather information. The whale is thought to have been a 12-month-old calf. Humpback whales usually spend about 12 months with their mother, so this calf could have been separated from its parent before ending up in the jungle on its own.
“We only found the whale because of the presence of scavenging birds of prey,” said Dirlene Silva from the department of health, sanitation, and environment (Semma), speaking to Brazilian journal O Liberal. “The vultures were spotted circling above the carcass.” Marajo Island non-profit Bicho D’agua Institute’s biologists found it difficult to reach the body. Their first attempt was unexpectedly thwarted by swampy water, and they had to try again.
Project president and marine specialist Renata Emin spoke up: “We’re guessing that the creature was floating close to the shore and the tide, which has been pretty considerable over the past few days, picked it up and threw it inland, into the mangrove.” She continued, illustrating the general mood of astonishment: “We are baffled as to what a humpback whale is doing on the north coast of Brazil during February because this is a very unusual occurrence!”
Emin explained that humpback whales are normally seen in Bahia, a well-known whale breeding area in northeastern Brazil, between August and November. The whales’ next stop is then Antarctica, where they migrate on the hunt for food. “Humpback whales don’t usually travel to the north,” Emin continued. “We have a record of one appearing in the area three years ago, but it’s rare.”
“We believe this is a calf which may have been traveling with its mother and probably got lost or separated during the migratory cycle,” she said.
It has been suggested by The Maritime Herald that the whale may have been killed by swallowing marine plastics, adding weight to ongoing revelations about the true extent of the global plastic waste epidemic. Researchers are being cautious: there is, as yet, no clear cause of death. An autopsy should reveal more.
“Depending on the state of decomposition, some information may already have been lost,” Emin added. “We are collecting as much information as we can.” The specialist went on to explain that any identifying marks or wounds on the whale’s body would indicate whether or not it had been hit by a boat, caught in a net, or fatally injured in any way. Samples of parasites and samples from within the muscles would reveal any hidden diseases that could have contributed to the whale’s demise.
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But it’s not a speedy process; the autopsy will last for up to 10 days. Interestingly, it will take place on-site as the sheer size and weight of the creature makes moving it a far too ambitious prospect. After taking what they need to conclude the whale’s story, scientists will bury the body.
The skeleton will end up at the Goeldi Natural History Museum in Belem.
How do you think the whale calf ended up stranded in the mangroves? Share this startling story with everybody you know who loves a scientific mystery!