Two dead sperm whales that appeared on the Maine coast this spring provided opportunities for scientists and students to learn more about them, but they are grim reminders of the threats marine mammals constantly face. The 10-foot pygmy sperm whale that washed ashore on Dyer’s Island, Vinalhaven, had died after ingesting a plastic trash bag. The animal was pregnant, the subsequent necropsy revealed, doubling the loss but providing the North Haven students who dissected the carcass with an unusual learning opportunity. Eventually the skeletons of both mother and offspring will be re-articulated as a further teaching tool.

The 46-foot sperm whale that appeared off Boothbay and was towed to the Bar Harbor Airport in Trenton for dissection was an information-gathering opportunity for College of the Atlantic researchers and others who volunteered to help. It had apparently been injured in a ship strike, a common fate of whales that surface in high-traffic areas including the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy.

Numerous species of whales frequent this biologically rich region in summer, where researchers have identified, counted, tagged, tracked and occasionally dissected them for decades, learning a great deal about their numbers, their habits and the dangers that can shorten their lives. A dead whale is an awe-inspiring sight; a live one puts us in touch with something much greater than ourselves.