TIVERTON, N.S. — When Amy Tudor looked down at the carcass of a minke whale that washed ashore on a rugged stretch of the Nova Scotia coast, she wondered if it was the same playful mammal that swam around her tour boat last July.
Tudor, who guides expeditions with Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tours, said she noticed the animal months ago as she cruised waters off Brier Island, N.S., because it was inquisitive and came so close to the boat.
"It was an amazingly friendly minke," she said Monday. "We had one that swam around the boat and it felt like it was playing with us."
On Friday, Tudor was called to a seaweed-covered piece of shoreline nearby in Tiverton after a fisherman searching for buoys discovered a whale laying lifeless on the rocks, with its eyes open and mouth agape.
When she got there, she started examining the animal, manually closed its eyes and wondered, "'Is this that whale? Could that be that whale that I videotaped and photographed?'"
Tudor said there were no clear signs of what caused the death, one of the latest in a mounting and worrisome mortality rate for the species in mostly U.S. waters.
The American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there were 29 minke whale deaths last year, including one so far this year, in a range that stretches from Maine to South Carolina — something it calls an "unusual mortality" for the population.
It says while minke whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the species is not listed as endangered or threatened. Minke whales are not considered endangered in Canada.
Necropsies done on over 60 per cent of the whales suggest several had died of human interactions or infectious disease. A team of scientists will review the data and sample stranded whales as part of an investigation.
Andrew Reid of the Marine Animal Response Society in Halifax reviewed Tudor's pictures and is looking at possible options to get to the whale, though it is in an almost inaccessible area if it hasn't already been carried out to sea by the tides.
He said it's not uncommon to see about 10 to 15 minke whale deaths a year, adding that most of those occur in the spring and summer. There were eight minke deaths last year.
He said it appeared this animal had abrasions, but that it doesn't necessarily mean the whale was struck by a vessel or entangled in rope.
"We haven't seen an increase in the number of deaths," he said, cautioning that the whales don't stay on the surface for very long after dying. "The loss of any animal is always concerning, but not as alarming as a dead right whale."
There are roughly 450 right whales left in the world, and that number is declining. Last year there were 17 confirmed right whale deaths in Canada and the United States, many the result of fishing gear entanglements.
"We had eight dead minke whales last year," said Reid.
Reid said the minke population stood at 2,591 in Canadian waters, adding the whales do not migrate south so they remain in the area for the winter.
- By Alison Auld in Halifax
The Canadian Press