Dead juvenile humpback whale washes up on UK beach

This humpback whale washed up dead on the beach at Blyth in Northumberland, shown here on March 19, 2021.
This humpback whale washed up dead on the beach at Blyth in Northumberland, shown here on March 19, 2021. (Image credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/PA Images)

A partially decomposed 36-foot-long (11 meters) juvenile humpback whale carcass washed up on a beach in the U.K. weeks after the animal was first spotted dead in the water.

The whale, nicknamed Humpy, washed up at 7:15 a.m. local time Friday (March 19) on England's Northumberland coast. Humpy was first identified in the area on Jan. 31 by the U.K. Humpback Catalogue, a citizen science project that identifies humpbacks in British waters from photographs sent by the public. 

Humpy was confirmed dead on March 5 after the body was found caught in some ropes. Now that the whale's body has washed ashore, the local council has warned people to avoid the area until the body can be removed, because the "partially decomposed carcass" is emitting an "unpleasant smell," according to the BBC.

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"They do have a bit of a unique stench that seems good at clinging to clothes afterwards," Dan Jarvis, a field support officer for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) who wasn't involved in the incident, told Live Science. "Given the size of the animal, the smell will envelop a fairly large area, especially downwind."

Humpy is the third humpback whale to be found dead in the U.K. this year; one was spotted in Scotland on March 5, and another washed up in Cornwall on March 12, according to the U.K. Humpback Catalogue.

On the rise 

The number of humpback whales in British waters has been on the rise in recent years because of increased stocks of herring, which are a favorite of ocean mammals. Last year, 119 humpback sightings were reported in the U.K. — the third-highest number of sightings on record, according to data from the Sea Watch Foundation.

"With more animals visiting our waters, it's inevitable that we will also see more strandings," Jarvis said.

Populations have rebounded after decades of intensive whaling in the mid-20th century and ocean conditions have changed rapidly due to climate change, both of which may also explain why more humpbacks are frequenting U.K. waters, Jarvis said. 

Getting tangled up 

Scientists don't know why Humpy died, and the body is too decomposed for a full necropsy to take place, according to the BBC.  

Although the body was tangled in ropes, it is unclear if entanglement killed Humpy or if the carcass became entangled after death. However, entanglement is generally a big problem for humpbacks in the U.K.

"Around the U.K., accidental entanglement in fishing gear is one of the biggest threats this species faces," Jarvis said. "They tend to come closer to shore than most other large whale species," he added, which means there is "greater potential for interaction with both active and lost gear."

Most beached whales are already dead when they wash ashore, which can make it hard to establish a cause of death even when they haven't begun decomposing, Jarvis said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Harry Baker
Senior Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based senior staff writer at Live Science. He studied marine biology at the University of Exeter before training to become a journalist. He covers a wide range of topics including space exploration, planetary science, space weather, climate change, animal behavior, evolution and paleontology. His feature on the upcoming solar maximum was shortlisted in the "top scoop" category at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Awards for Excellence in 2023.