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Wayward Whale Dies in Virginia River

Aug 22, 2014 12:35 PM EDT

What is suspected to be a large and rare sei whale unfortunately died yesterday after being stranded in Virginia's Elizabeth River for several days. Experts who were on the scene had suspected there was something very wrong with the animal, and are due to perform a necropsy to determine the exact cause of death.

The whale was first noticed in the wide Elizabeth River on Monday. It was reportedly acting very strange in the river's Southern Branch near the Jordan Bridge and Paradise Creek, where the Fifth Coast Guard District caught the whale on film.

By Tuesday, the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center (VAMSC) became involved, dispatching a stranding response team to monitor the situation alongside the NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement. At the time, the team and the NOAA agreed that the best course of action was to simply observe the whale, as any action taken could cause it to become severely stressed.

However, by Tuesday things has turned for the worse, with the VAMSC reporting that the whale had moved to shallow water and was not moving by Jordan Bridge.

"We are hoping that during a high tide the whale will swim to deeper water. Officials, including the Stranding Response Team, will be on site monitoring the situation. NOAA Guidelines prohibit interacting with the whale at this time," they said in a statement on social media.

Unfortunately, by Thursday the whale had perished. Marine Patrol Police were with the Virginia Aquarium's Stranding Response Team on Thursday to monitor the whale and found it motionless off St. Julien's Creek Annex in Portsmouth.

"It swam out of the shallows overnight," the team reported. "As the situation unfolds, plans are being made to perform a necropsy (animal autopsy). Immediate results may or may not indicate probable cause of death. Tissue and blood samples will be drawn for further study."

"This is heartbreaking news and difficult to understand," VAMSC said that morning.

The team had already started to receive a significant amount of criticism for not doing more to help the animal, but the aquarium staff stood by their decision to not turn the animal around and help it find the ocean.

"Whales come to the surface to breath. One theory is that marine mammals strand to prevent drawing. If an animal is sick or weak and it cannot swim anymore, it would be inhumane to push it back out," a representative explained. "While it would be 'out of sight, out of mind for us,' it would likely suffer more in that situation."

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