Veterinarians in New York have euthanized a 20-ton humpback whale that spent several days stuck in the shallow waters of Moriches Bay off Long Island.
The whale, which was first spotted feeding in the bay 10 days earlier, had become stuck in a cove with water just one to two feet deep, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said. Since then, it had become "minimally responsive" and had signs of "neurological abnormalities and extensive skin injuries with evidence of infection," CNN reported.
In a statement, a joint veterinary team of private and NOAA researchers said the most humane option was to euthanize the whale, "since its chance of surviving in the wild was minimal."
The creature had been spotted feeding in Moriches Bay on Nov. 13, according to the Riverhead Foundation. Attempts to free it from a sandbar and create waves to help it swim away failed.
"The tidal conditions and other oceanic or biological factors that led to this stranding overtook any ability by our responders to rescue it," said John Bullard, director of NOAA's Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office.
Local residents, some of whom wept as veterinarians euthanized the whale, had criticized the foundation and experts working to free it, saying they waited too long to act. Residents even attempted to free the whale themselves but were turned away by officials, News 12 reported.
Environmentalists were also unhappy with the rescue response. “I’m not only sad, I’m angry,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, told the Associated Press. “Doing nothing is not an option. We are better than that.”
NOAA officials pointed out that when large whales strand, "there may be underlying health issues such as illness or malnutrition. Thus, refloating a large whale may not be in its best interest, as it is already sick."
They also said efforts to move whales off beaches "can cause more harm to the animal as strong pressure on the tail or flippers can result in internal injuries and put people involved at risk."
The whale is one of several seen recently in the area. Another humpback was sighted earlier this week in New York's Hudson River. For nearly a week, the whale has been seen just off the wharves of Manhattan. Sightings have been reported from the Statue of Liberty to well north of the George Washington Bridge.
Humpback whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but NOAA earlier this year revised the Endangered Species listing to remove several species, including those most commonly found off New York.
Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo