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Whale of a mystery

January 8, 2019

STRATFORD — Joe Koripsky has seen plenty of marine wildlife on the town’s coastline over the years.

But never a pygmy sperm whale.

So when a friend asked him last month if he had heard about a whale that washed up on Russian Beach, Koripsky, a former science teacher and member of the town’s conservation commission, rushed there to take a look.

“I knew right off the bat that it was something really rare,” he said.

He snapped pictures and sent them to state and federal conservation officials, then made daily visits to the beach to document the scene more.

Mystic Aquarium — the agency authorized by federal officials to deal with stranded marine life in southern New England — responded and confirmed the carcass was a pygmy sperm whale, a somewhat rare species.

The whales are found in seas worldwide, but scientists have trouble estimating their population or studying them because they tend to avoid vessels and planes, and only surface when sea and weather conditions are calm.

“They’re a little challenging to get a lot of good data on, because they’re pretty off on their own,” Janelle Schuh, the manager of Mystic Aquarium’s animal rescue program, said.

The aquarium’s “stranding database” dating back to the 1970s lists reports of five pygmy sperm whale sightings — four in Rhode Island and one in Long Island.

“This would be our first one that we’ve had in the state of Connecticut,” Schuh said.

Schuh said the carcass was too far decomposed for a necropsy determining how the animal died could be performed. However, representatives from Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History were in talks to take the carcass for further study.

But before that could happen, the whale disappeared.

Koripsky said he went to the beach on Dec. 30, only to find tire tracks going from the area where the dead whale was located to the nearby seawall.

He suspects someone rolled the carcass — he estimated it was 8 to 9 feet long and around 800 pounds — onto a tarp and then slid it onto a trailer.

Why they would want to is another question.

“What do you do with a whale carcass?” Koripsky said. “It’s possible some of the residents took it upon themselves to remove it. It’s a mystery.”

He said the cold weather slowed the decomposition process somewhat, but that whoever moved the carcass wouldn’t have had the most pleasant experience.

“It wouldn’t be the nicest thing to smell,” Koripsky said. “But it wouldn’t be enough to gag a maggot. It did not reek overwhelmingly of decaying flesh.”

Tina Batoh, the town’s superintendent of conservation, asked whoever took the carcass to call her at 203-385-4080, no questions asked.

“I would certainly be happy to let Peabody Museum know where the whale is and where it could be picked up,” she said.

Batoh said she was also putting together a notice to put on the town’s website seeking information and trying to set up a protocol to follow if any more rare marine life washes up on the town’s shores.

A hotline set up by Mystic Aquarium to report stranded marine life can be reached at 860-572-5955, ext. 107.

“I have never heard of a pygmy sperm whale in Long Island Sound in all the years I’ve been living in Connecticut,” Batoh said. “It seems to me like this is a very rare occurrence. It would be such a shame if it was just rotting away in a landfill somewhere.”

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