A Dead Humpback, a Team of Scientists, a Race for Answers

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Darlene Ketten, a marine biologist at Boston University, was making dinner on a Sunday night in early May when she got an email from a friend at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In the waters off Cape Cod’s northern tip, a humpback whale had been found dead. And not just any whale: A 40-ton female that Provincetown researchers had tracked since she first appeared offshore in 1984. They followed her through adolescence, motherhood—she’d had at least five calves—and maturity. They named her Vector, and the distinctive black-and-white markings on her tail, or fluke, became known to whale enthusiasts from Cape Cod to Canada.

In a city where the thrill of whale watching lures tourists and Bostonians out to sea all summer long, Vector’s death set off an intense race. For dozens of regional researchers, this was a rare opportunity to not only understand the life of a singular humpback, but to explore how we are harming our oceans and the magnificent creatures that live in them. In a matter of 72 hours, Vector’s 80,000 pounds of soaking wet blubber was towed onto a sandy stretch of Cape Cod Bay, a team of BU scientists rushed to perform a series of delicate procedures on her carcass right there on the beach, and then the team, with whale tissue samples in tow, hustled back to their lab at BU to begin months, perhaps even years, of studies.

All in the interest of science.