• They have a lot more to teach us.

    We've learned a lot with your help. But there's still so much we need to know to protect our wild dolphin neighbors.

    Give to dolphin research at the Cape Lookout Studies Program.

  • Sea Turtel sick and injured from fishing line

    You can stop this.

    Protecting marine wildlife is within your reach.

    When you give to put monofilament recycling bins within reach of conscientious boaters and anglers.

  • Harbor seal in need

    Save lives, reduce suffering, learn more.

    It's a win, win, win – when you support our Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

    Please give generously to the Cape Lookout Studies Program.

  • Cetacean Studies

    Inspire curiosity.

    What does it take to get students interested in science and conservation? Your help.

    Please give generously to support Cetacean Studies and the Bonehenge rearticulation project.

Dwarf Sperm Whale Sighting and Subsequent Stranding

Written by Keith_Rittmaster. Posted in Uncategorized

Dwarf Sperm whale (Kogia sima) sighting and Subsequent Stranding
On April 1st, 2011 we received a report of a lone dolphin swimming in an unusual manner near a dock in Morgan creek between Beaufort and Morehead city. The caller was concerned that it might be in trouble. We arrived to an unusual sight. From a distance it has a dolphin -like appearance, but it’s logging” at the surface with infrequent dives was behavior more like that of a pygmy or dwarf sperm whale. We went back to our Gallants channel docks and returned in our trusty boat Spyhop to get a better look with Keith, Nan, Vicky and Brooks on board. It was indeed a dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima). This pelagic (open ocean) species occasionally strands on our NC beaches but it is very unusual to see a live one swimming in the estuary or even close to shore. A local resident who was fishing nearby told us it had been there for several days.
Stranding network staff and volunteers from NC Division of Marine fisheries, the NC Maritime Museum, and NC State University CMAST monitored the whale’s position and behavior throughout the day and following morning. On Saturday April 2nd, the whale was seen at 4:30 am but then was not seen again until it was sighted dead in adjacent marshes around noon. It was a 7′ (218 cm) long male and weighed 322 pounds (146 kg). We froze the Kogia sima carcass for future necropsy and study.
kogia sima

Interesting Brain Mass to Body Mass Percentages

Written by Keith_Rittmaster. Posted in Uncategorized

When the the Gervais’ beaked whale stranded back in February, we were excited to be able to weight the whale on the beach. With subsequent skull dissection in the lab it was learned that this whale’s brain weight, or mass, to body weight, or mass, was approximately 0.25%.    
Below are some comparative values of brain mass to body mass percentages from  other species:

beaked whale – 0.25%

right whale – 0.004% (their testicles are much larger than their brains)
sperm whale – 0.02% (but their brain is the largest on earth)
bottlenose dolphin – 0.96%
human – 2.1%-2.5%
mouse – 2.5%

We may have to rethink this whole ‘intelligence/brain meaning’.
(See February 25th, 2011 blog entry about this whale’s stranding).   

Humpback Whale in Core Sound

Written by Keith_Rittmaster. Posted in Uncategorized

During the week of March 7th, 2011, a 27′ male humpback whale was seen swimming then later, stranded in Core Sound.  It had 8 propeller cuts, some long and deep, forward of the dorsal fin.  By Friday it had been aground for at least 2 days, weakened with entanglement scars, scavenger damage (shark and birds), curved spine, abraded skin, anemic, leaning in a hole it had wallowed out in the sand, and still alive – a sad sight.  A team that included staff and volunteers from NC State Univ. Center for Marine and Sciences Technology, UNC-Wilmington, NC Division of Marine Fisheries, NC Maritime Museum, Cape Lookout National Seashore, and Tow Boat/US euthanized the whale and performed a necropsy.  In addition to the team’s collection of measurements and tissue samples, Keith brought back the left pectoral flipper for research, education, and display.  This investigation will enhance our knowledge of large whale anatomy and physiology.  The flipper measures 9′ long and 25″ at its widest point, and weighs ~260 pounds.  The short term goal is to get radiology, CT scan, and MRI images of this fin.  Long term, he plans to prepare the bones and eventually create a display with the images and bones.  Despite the sad nature of this event, each live marine mammal stranding offers a rare opportunity for scientists and veterinarians to learn more about these fascinating creatures. The information gained can be used to minimize suffering in live stranded cetaceans and contribute to marine mammal conservation.
Here’s a bit of media coverage about the whale: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWNlAoK2FIg

Look at the entry for April 15, 2011 to see what we are doing with one of the flippers of this whale.

Live Harp Seal on Harkers Island, NC

Written by Keith_Rittmaster. Posted in Uncategorized

 Last Thursday afternoon (Feb. 24th, 2011) Frank and Peggy Guthrie reported a live seal on the shore near their home on Harkers Island.  Keith drove there right away and found a harp seal (see photo), which eventually entered the water and swam away.  This may be a new species for Carteret County, but interestingly in the past 2 weeks there have been 2 other harp seals photographed in NC – one at Kill Devil Hills and one on Masonboro Island.  Examining the photos carefully, we have determined that these sighting are of 3 different individual harp seals.

   During winter months, sightings of seals on beaches and in waters of North Carolina are becoming increasingly frequent.  North Carolina is considered part of the normal winter range for harbor seals, our most common seal visitor (see photo).  But recently we have seen 3 additional seal species (gray, hooded, and harp seals) in NC, all of which we consider out of their more northern normal range.  Distinguishing individual seal species can be tricky and generally requires experience and/or a good guide book.  Evaluating their health status is an even greater challenge.  Lying on beaches is a normal behavior for seals and they generally don’t need to be rescued.  If a seal is sighted on a beach in Carteret or adjacent counties, please call the NC Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 252-241-5119 so we can confirm the species ID and attempt to evaluate its health.  Please do not attempt to pet or feed the seal as this is illegal and can be dangerous.  Please give them a wide berth and do not crowd, harass, or agitate them.  Please try to respect their beauty without being noticed, enjoy the view, and learn more about seals by visiting http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/pinnipeds/.

Gervais’ beaked whale Strands on Atlantic Beach, NC

Written by Keith_Rittmaster. Posted in Uncategorized

Their mouths don’t open wide and
the females do not have erupted teeth.
(Males generally have 2 erupted teeth). 

 Vicky G. Thayer, Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for mid-coast North Carolina, was contacted about a marine mammal stranded at Atlantic Beach, NC on Thursday, February 10, 2011 . The whale was at water’s edge when found. It was a sub-adult female Gervais’ beaked whale, Mesoplodon europaeus, not a whale that commonly strands here. 

Scars from Cookie Cutter Sharks, 
not unusual for off-shore marine mammals
Notice that there is no notch in
the tail flukes 

Moving the whale out of the water
and onto the beach with a 4-wheel

The whale was so heavy that we had 

to take air out of the tires

to keep towing her in the sand.

In just 3 hours the bruising in her jaw became more
evident. Later, it was discovered that beneath this
bruise were two fractures of her jaw.

It was exciting to be able to weigh the whale since that was data not often collected because of the complexity of having all the equipment at hand. Carl brought a generator; county employees brought and drove the backhoe and Keith got the load cell. Many of us took pictures while knots were tied the whale readied to be hoisted up.

Weighing the whale.

Removing the blubber.

The local  crew. 
More scientists arrive from
Wilmington, NC to help. 
While we were working with this
dead whale, live whales and dolphins
were sighted in the ocean.                                          
Data sheets are like gold, as this
is where all information is recorded. 

The stomach.
Getting samples is not always easy.

Measuring the depth of
the blubber along the
length of the body.


She had a very small dorsal fin.

At the Vet School, her skull was
examined with both an MRI and a
CT. After that, her skull was dissected and more samples taken for study.

At the Vet School, when the skull was dissected
 two jaw fractures were discovered. They 

correspond to the location of the bruises.
You can see the large crescent shaped
blow hole in this picture.


Remains not taken to Vet school were left on the
beach to be buried the next morning wi
th a backhoe.

Skull, bones and samples are loaded
on the pick-up to be taken to NC Vet
School in Raleigh,NC for further investigation.

We finished just as it was getting dark.
During the afternoon it had gotten progressively colder. Fortunately, midway through the afternoon, Keith brought us a large bag of french fries. Since my hands  were clean, I put  handfuls in the mouths of hungry people whose hands were bloody.
The success of this entire endeavor was due to an incredible collaboration between NC DMF, NCSU, CVM, CMAST, NC Maritime Museum, NC Atlantic Beach Public Works and numerous individual volunteers.
(See blog entry for April 7, 2011 for more detail on this whale) 

Marine Mammal Day at North Carolina Museum of Natural Science

Written by Keith_Rittmaster. Posted in Uncategorized

On January 29, we participated in Marine Mammal day at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.We were busy demonstrating how we make molds of our sperm whale teeth and  how we paint the replica teeth to make them realistic.We educated folks about our Monofilament Recovery and Recycling Program; our Marine Mammal Stranding Network; the skeletal structure of whales and dolphins and our dolphin photo ID program. In addition to using words and pictures, we used our ‘dolphin fin matching’ game to teach in an interactive way. It was a fun, tiring and successful day.

Pictures from Marine Mammal Day at Raleigh Museum of
Natural Science, January 29. Photos by Keith Rittmaster


Removing Bones from Pectoral Fins of Bottlenose Dolphins

Written by Keith_Rittmaster. Posted in Uncategorized

First the fins were boiled on a camp stove in a fish poacher for 5 hours.The poacher may not be used in the kitchen again. When the bones are clean and ready to use, Keith makes anatomically correct Bottlenose dolphin pectoral fin boards.
Cooking the fins
Fin resting on left edge of the poaching pan filled with fat
The bones with flesh hanging on
Lindsey digging out bones
phalanges and carpals in jar

Lindsey is digging all the bones out of each fin 
and searching through all the ‘goo’ for any errant bones. Having gloves on is essential or she could carry the smell for a very long time. The bones were then rinsed in Dawn, ammonia and boiling water multiple times.  Keith (Lindsey had gone home) scrubbed each bone intensely with a wire brush and re-washed the bones several more times. The last photo shows the bones becoming cleaner and lighter in a mixture of 5% peroxide and water.