a whole different beach

June 4, 2005




This is the first time I've been on plover warden duty since before the big nor'easter. That would be May nor'easter version 2.0, the interminable storm. Nor'easter the infinitely prolonged. The eternal storm. I thought May nor'easter 1.0 had taken a bite out of the beach but 2.0 beat it by several orders of magnitude. This does not even look like the same beach. There's a deep pool with current running along the beach and a big berm of newly accumulated sand on the other side of it. You have to ford this huge pool to get to the waterline.

All the piping plover pairs lost their nests in nor'easter 2.0, even the two that survived nor'easter 1.0 and were about to hatch. One pair out of the 7 has re-nested so far. So for some of these pairs this will be their third attempt. There's still time enough for the eggs to hatch and the chicks to fledge before the fall migration, but it is a big setback.

Nor'easter 2.0 washed away so much sand that in uncovered a dead finback whale that had been buried 9 years. I'm not surprised that something buried 9 years ago was uncovered, after all, on Salisbury Beach just across the river the storms (1.0 and 2.0) uncovered rocks that had been placed there to trap sand and build beach in the 1940s. 1996 is yesterday compared to that. What does surprise me is how much rotting whale flesh is still clinging to the bones.

There's an informational sign posted on the beach in front of the ditch containing the whale remains. It asks "What's that smelly blob on the beach?" and explains that it's a finback whale. At the beginning of my shift at high tide the whale wasn't really visible as it was covered by water. People would read the sign, then walk over and ask me "So, where's the whale?" As the tide started to go out, it became more visible but was still underwater in the newly formed pool. Basically people crossing the pool to get to the waterline were wading in the whale's grave.

The distinctive whale smell began to emerge as the tide went out, but it never got to be unbearable. Jean stopped by and filled me in on the whale's back story and told me that it was really stinky for the plover warden who was on duty last week at this time. So, I had to ask why on earth anybody would bury a dead whale in the sand on a barrier beach so close to the water. The salt water would keep it from decomposing and the bottom creatures that would normally devour it when it naturally sank to the bottom out at sea aren't in the sand. Furthermore, in the immortal words of my hero Orrin Pilkey "The beaches are moving!" It was almost guaranteed that the remains would be exposed at some point as the sand flowed out to sea. Anything buried on a barrier beach will be exposed sooner or later, whether it's a whale that's 9 years dead or a shipwreck from the 19th century. And then it will be covered up again. Meanwhile, it smells.

According to Jean, the whale was originally found floating at sea and mistaken for a rare right whale. There are so few right whales left that scientists want to know the cause of death of every single one. So the whale got towed in to shore to see if scientists wanted to examine it. Once they realized it was a finback, fairly common as whales of the north Atlantic go, nobody wanted it. So they buried it. I guess they didn't want to tow it back out to sea. This poor whale, whom Nancy named Pilkey when I told her about it this afternoon, didn't even appeal to museums like KOBO the blue whale or the recently rearticulated sperm whale.

Regular readers of my Moby Dick Marathon entries will remember that I comment every year that KOBO's bones still have a slight smell of whale oil. Neither KOBO nor the rearticulated sperm whale took nearly 9 years to decompose. KOBO was lowered to the bottom and his flesh devoured by sea creatures. The sperm whale was buried inland a high temperature compost heap and then bleached in the sun once the flesh was off the bones. Assuming that the sand covers up Pilkey again in a week or so, he'll be preserved in his rotting state for some time. Poor whale. Not quite undead, but unburied.

Not a single visitor asked me about piping plovers. Everybody asked about the whale. Nobody asked about anything but the whale until a guy asked me if he could go into the closed area of beach because he was going to propose to his girlfriend and wanted to write "Will you marry me?" in the sand so she'd see it from an airplane in which they'd be passing over the island at 1:30 PM. He wants to propose with a scrape in the sand? How piping plover like can you get? I patiently explained that I really couldn't just let him walk down the beach with the plovers in the midst of re-nesting and suggested that he talk to Jean and maybe she could help him. Later as I was leaving, I saw Jean with the scrape in the sand guy discussing where he could do this without disturbing the plovers. I really want to know if the girl accepts.


Todays' Bird Sightings
Plum Island

ring billed gull 2
black bellied plover 3
great black backed gull 2
double crested cormorant 3
common grackle 2
common tern 3
herring gull 3


does a dead finback whale count?

Coast Guard Assets


Today's Reading
The King's English
by Betsy Burton

This Year's Reading
2005 Booklist

Today's Starting Pitcher
Bronson Arroyo



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Copyright © 2005, Janet I. Egan