Update: Researchers from the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center initially misidentified the whale the washed ashore in Norfolk on Sunday. It is a fin whale, not a sei whale, Joan Barns, an aquarium spokeswoman, said Tuesday.
NORFOLK — The beach was busy Monday, but not because of warm weather.
Instead, curious onlookers arrived wearing parkas and gloves to catch a glimpse of the 42-foot dead sei whale that washed ashore at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on Sunday.
“I don’t often get a chance to do that,” said Knox Garvin, a photography teacher at Norview High School in Norfolk.
He was among dozens of people Monday morning in Norfolk’s Ocean View neighborhood with cameras and cellular phones. Many posed in front of the leviathan, which was likely struck by a ship, while companions snapped photographs.
The crowd was so constant — schools, many government offices and some business were closed due to Presidents Day — that the Virginia Marine Resources Commission dispatched an officer to keep an eye on things.
The stranding comes during what’s been Virginia’s most active whale-watching season in recent memory. Researchers from the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach have counted 42 individual whales this year, spokeswoman Joan Barns said.
It’s not only whales — fishermen say tuna and other large fish are swimming close to shore. Researchers speculate they’re following menhaden and other feeder fish.
“It’s all about access to food,” Barns said.
Many of the whales are humpbacks, which are common this time of year in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Researchers also have spotted fin and minke whales, Barns said.
The sei — pronounced “say” or “sigh” — is seen less often, she said. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, sei whales have a lifespan of 50 to 70 years and can grow 60 feet and weigh 100,000 pounds. They travel alone or in small groups.
The population was greatly depleted due to commercial whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries. Protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and as an endangered species, there are an estimated 80,000 worldwide.
Researchers have not determined what killed the whale — a necropsy is scheduled Tuesday — but they believe it was struck by a ship. The whale had an 18-inch gash on the back of it’s head, which fractured its skull, and traces of orange and brown paint or rust were in the wound.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the fisheries service, compiled a list of possible whale/ship strikes off U.S. shores from 1975 to 2002. While not conclusive, the report found that most strikes occur in the Atlantic.
During that time, only three sei whales were reported as possibly hit by a ship. Most whale strikes are fatal, the report says. It’s possible the whale in Norfolk died before it was hit by a ship, Barns said, but it will likely take weeks of tests before researchers could prove that.
Researchers on Tuesday will take samples of the whale back to the Virginia Beach laboratory after the City of Norfolk hauls it closer to shore, Barns said. The city will then dispose of the whale — stranded whales are typically hauled back into the sea with a tugboat or other large vessel or buried on land.