In Bar Harbor on June 6, people gathered from miles around to view the remains of 46-fot-long sub-adult sperm whale. The whale, which had been dead for about a month, was last seen off Heron Island near Boothbay. The Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company towed it by boat to Trenton where permission was granted by Bob Cossette of the Bar Harbor Airport to conduct the necropsy there.

“This was the fastest whale necropsy we have done to date, due to so many volunteers,” said Toby Stephenson, director of exhibits at the Bar Harbor Whale Museum. “Possible cause of death was a ship strike,” said Stephenson, noting “contusions, blood in the blubber and the state of the neck.”

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales. They have 20 to 26 pairs of cone-shaped teeth in their lower jaw, each of which can weigh as much as two pounds. The sperm whale is one of the deepest diving whales, and can dive to depths of nearly two miles and remain there for over an hour while feeding on giant squid. A sperm whale’s head contains a giant reservoir of spermaceti, which is a waxy oil. The name derives from Latin sperma ceti meaning “sperm of the whale” or strictly, “sperm of the sea monster.” The substance is not, of course, the whale’s semen; it was mistaken for such by early whalers, but was what the whales were primarily hunted for.

In the whale, the oil may aid in the use of the head as a battering ram in fights between males. A second and more contested theory suggests that it is an aid to control the whales’ buoyancy, since its density can be increased by cooling it with water brought in through the blowhole, helping the whale to sink. A third and more accepted hypothesis is that it is used as an aid to echolocation, or as part of the animal’s sonar equipment used to detect and possibly stun prey.

The dead whale is federal property, but College of the Atlantic holds a letter of authority to maintain and possess the remains. After the two days and a large volunteer effort to cut away most of the blubber the bones were to be buried so the remaining flesh will decompose. Later, the whale will be dug up and “re-articulated” for a museum exhibit. The last large whale re-articulation (of a juvenile humpback) went on display at the Bar Harbor Whale Museum this spring.

“The success of the exhibit and this necropsy is due to a collaborative effort with College of the Atlantic, Allied Whale and the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company,” said Stephenson.

Jennifer Litteral, Marine Programs Officer at the Island Institute, took part in this and past whale necropsies.