The Whale Coroner
When 40 feet and 80 tons of mammal turns up dead, whether it’s in the middle of the ocean surrounded by sharks or on the shore surrounded by gaping beachgoers, Michael Moore gets the call.
By Keith O’Brien | October 2, 2005
One of the important things you need to know before dissecting a dead whale is how to handle a knife – a really big knife. Depending on the condition of the carcass, other necessities may include an excavator or backhoe, chains, sharp 3-foot-long Japanese whaling hooks, and someone who’s not afraid to stand on top of a dead whale floating in the middle of the ocean surrounded by circling sharks. In New England, veterinarian and marine-mammal biologist Michael Moore is that man.
“There’s only a handful of folks who can take apart a whale the way Michael does,” says Katie Touhey, a marine-mammal biologist and director of the Cape Cod Stranding Network, a nonprofit organization that responds when whales, dolphins, and seals – dead or alive – wash up on the beach. “I know how to take apart a whale, but not like Michael.”
Few do. But it’s part of Moore’s job as a research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he’s worked since 1986. Recently, he figured out how to use an ultrasound machine to measure the body fat of female whales. One of his long-term efforts has been to track the effects of sewage in Boston Harbor on the health of winter flounder. Curiosity and related research got him interested in whale necropsies. He learned the trade by watching. And by the late 1990s, he was the necropsy team leader.
When a 37-foot humpback whale washed up on Duxbury Beach in October 2001, there was Moore, sawing it open. When an even bigger sperm whale turned up dead in Nantucket the following summer, there was Moore again, taking it apart bone by bone. And when an endangered right whale turns up dead just about anywhere on the East Coast, you can bet that Moore will be there, trying to find out why.
That’s what the work is about: finding answers. From the carcasses, Moore figures out how these whales lived and why they died, whether it was from an infection, a tumor, or a run-in with a ship or fishing net. And this information, unearthed from tons of blubber, helps academics, research scientists, fisheries managers, environmental scientists, and governments understand what’s happening to whales in the North Atlantic.
It isn’t glamorous work, but Moore doesn’t care. He’s a sandals-and-shorts kind of guy. Hair mussed. A wry smile on his face. He’s a 49-year-old Englishman, educated at Cambridge University, and he still has his accent. But he married a woman from Massachusetts 21 years ago and moved to her home on a small island just off the coast, part of the seaside town of Marion. There, from time to time, the phone will ring with news of a dead whale. And Moore will take a boat to the mainland, climb in his truck, and go.
“It’s sort of a love-hate relationship at this point,” he says of the necropsies. “It’s exhausting. It time-consuming. It’s challenging. They’re rewarding because you learn a lot. But enjoyable isn’t the word. There’s a lot of grunting.”
Dead whales stink. Their oily stench can linger even after a couple of long showers. “The smell never comes out,” Moore says. But it doesn’t bother him. He lost his sense of smell years ago, he says. Colleagues just deal with it. And when it gets really bad, they make up words to describe it, such as pancake (a badly decomposed whale), snarge (really nasty meat), and grunt (see snarge).
The real problem is logistics. In order to cut open a whale that has only recently died, biologists need heavy machinery. “You can’t cut a blubbery piece of meat,” Moore explains, “without some tension on it.” Problems happen. Disposal plans fall through. Beaches can be hard to reach, and weather can complicate matters. Just last fall, Moore found himself on the New Jersey Turnpike, in a snowstorm, at night, 4 tons of whale bones in the trailer bed.
“It gets tricky,” says Greg Early, a New Bedford biologist who performed whale necropsies on the Cape for New England Aquarium in the 1980s and ’90s. “You could be very good at hacking your way through a whale and still kind of make a disaster of it because you got into a fight with the backhoe guy, and he left you, and you’re stuck.”
“Each person has their own style,” Touhey says. “Michael just kind of pulls away the layers. The blubber’s gone. The muscle’s gone. Then he’s in the internal organs. It’s beautiful to watch.”
Sometimes, she says, it’s also extraordinary. Touhey was there a couple of years ago when Moore made the decision to climb atop a dead humpback whale floating 50 miles offshore as sharks circled the body. It was the best way to get the tissue samples they needed. Still, she says, “All I could think was, `His wife is going to kill me.'”
Regina Campbell-Malone, a doctoral candidate at MIT who is doing research at Woods Hole, remembers watching Moore wedge himself into a tiny crevice inside an 80-ton whale. Sandwiched between tons of flesh being held back by taut cables attached to heavy construction equipment, Moore was unconcerned. He just went about his work and then returned home to his wife on their little island.
Hannah Moore and her husband met while they were undergraduates studying humpbacks near Newfoundland. And while she chose a teaching career, she still understands what whales mean to him.
She is patient. She can deal with the smell. She can even deal with the fact that other people can’t deal. “Fewer people carpool with us these days,” Hannah Moore says. Perhaps that’s what happens when you’re a guy who periodically stops to pick up a dead seal or dolphin on your way somewhere else. Or who comes home at night smelling like snarge.
Others are understanding, too. “My dogs,” says Michael Moore, “love it.”