NAGS HEAD, N.C.
A North Atlantic right whale, one of the rarest animals in the world, washed ashore Sunday on an Outer Banks beach. The female whale had succumbed to injuries that may have been caused by a boat collision, experts said.
North Atlantic right whales - the rarest of all whales - are a "critically endangered" species, having once been popular hunting game.
Fewer than 500 are thought to remain, though the species is showing signs of a slow recovery, according to a recent report from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. In 2006, the group, a partnership of various agencies, estimated that 393 of the whales remained.
On a chilly day that kept most beachgoers away, wind pushed the 46-foot whale onto the Nags Head beach near Jennette's Pier.
A sei whale washed ashore at Sandbridge in Virginia Beach the same day.
Members of the Outer Banks Marine Mammal Stranding Network had been on the lookout after receiving reports that a dead right whale had been seen floating off the coasts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
Members of the stranding network performed a necropsy on the animal and identified it.
The whale was first observed in 1983, and it was last seen alive off Florida in February, said Karen Clark, a program coordinator at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education.
The whales are not tagged, but they are closely monitored by the scientific community. Because each animal's appearance is unique, sightings and photos allow individual whales to be identified and studied, Clark said.
During its life, the whale found in Nags Head had given birth to at least three calves. And, Clark said, the animal survived entanglements with boating and fishing gear on four documented occasions. It was about 30 years old.
The endangered status of the North Atlantic right whale is largely due to its former popularity among hunters.
Right whales are fatter than most, and they tend to feed near the surface of the water- making it easy for hunters to spot them, Clark said. Hunting them was outlawed in 1935.
"It's all in their name," she said. "They were the right whale to hunt."
Today, the primary threat to the species is boating collisions.
In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration implemented a new regulation requiring some large shipping vessels to slow to 10 knots when operating within 20 nautical miles of major East Coast ports.
The rule was intended to protect migrating North Atlantic right whales from colliding with cargo ships. At the time, NOAA estimated that such collisions killed at least two whales each year.
A right whale last washed onto an Outer Banks beach in 2008. The newborn stranded near Avon was euthanized.