When you live by the coast, you never know what the incoming tide may leave behind before it retreats back out to sea. A few weeks ago I was dumbfounded. I never imagined that the carcass of a huge finback whale would come to rest on my town’s shoreline.
Finback Whale Illustration by LG Design
It didn’t take long for me to become spellbound by this magnificent creature. Little did I know that we would soon form a very special relationship. Let me explain…
October 8th… First Spotted
The whale’s carcass had first been spotted in Boston Harbor on Oct. 8th. Nature had its own plans, however, and the carcass was pulled back out to sea. It then traveled — for almost two weeks — all the way to Rockport, Massachusetts, before becoming stuck on a rocky stretch of beach off Penzance Road. Needless to say, the finback became an instant attraction.
Finback whale comes ashore near Penzance Road
A nearby footpath provided viewing access for fascinated residents and visitors, but the whale’s beachfront location proved inaccessible to large machinery. Removing the carcass from that location was next to impossible, so Town Officials had little recourse other than to let nature take its course.
October 26th… My First Encounter
Once I learned of the whale’s exact location, I set off with camera in hand. When my eyes first caught a glimpse of the carcass, I was amazed. Finback whales are far from tiny. This whale’s carcass was reported to measure somewhere between 54-70 feet in length — a truly jaw-dropping site to see.
Determined to be a young, adult male, the finback’s decaying aroma was what I would politely describe as… “memorable.” I quickly learned to hold my breath when standing down wind. Still, nothing was going to deter me from studying the physical details of this fascinating creature.
A fin is still clearly visible
Even though the whale had been deceased for quite some time, my photographic eye could see much waiting to be captured with my lens. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After all, how many times does a finback whale practically land in your own backyard?
He Deserves A Name
After seeing this magnificent creature with my own eyes, I felt an instant connection. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that I felt he deserved a name. Naturally, I gave him one.
I saw his eye and a connection was born
Had I discovered him when he first appeared in Boston Harbor, perhaps I would have named him “Finnegan.” A good Irish name for a finback whale washing up in Bean Town.
However, it was here in Rockport that I discovered him resting on this rock-covered stretch of beach. Only one name could therefore do him justice — “Rocky.”
October 28th… The Day Before Hurricane Sandy’s Arrival
This year’s Hurricane Sandy will be remembered for a long time. As the storm barreled its way up the coast and was forecasted to converge with another weather system and form a Super Storm, I knew Rocky’s future was questionable. As I saw it, the waves would either throw his carcass further up onto the nearby resident’s property, or the storm’s force would carry him away never to be seen by me again.
Early waves from Hurricane Sandy pack a punch
On this day, Oct. 28th, several photographer friends were visiting me. As part of my tour of the area, I took them over to see Rocky. We were not alone. There were many visitors simultaneously saying both “hello” and “farewell” as time was limited and the hurricane was quickly approaching.
What condition would Rocky be in after the storm? Only time would tell.
October 30th… Sandy’s Aftermath. What Happened?
By now everyone knows the devastation Hurricane Sandy brought to the East Coast. I feared for Rocky’s condition. The ocean’s power was certainly formidable during the storm. As soon as Sandy had passed, I grabbed my camera and headed off to learn Rocky’s fate.
As I walked down the footpath to the beach, I kept my fingers crossed that he was still intact. However, when I reached the end of the path, I heard myself gasp. He was… gone. Hurricane Sandy had taken him with her.
Rocky disappears after Hurricane Sandy
October 31st… A Solitary Hour
The next morning I went into town to the Red Skiff — my favorite breakfast joint. While chatting with the staff, I mentioned Rocky’s disappearance. That’s when the miracle happened — I was told he was still in Rockport!
It had been reported that he had washed up on Cape Hedge Beach near South Street. Needless to say, I grabbed my camera equipment and headed off to find him.
Our Special Time Together
When I found him, I was startled to see that he was all alone. No residents. No visitors. No crowds. No one — except for me. I think that’s the way it was meant to be. I spent the next hour with him, up close and personal. Hurricane Sandy had definitely battered him up quite a bit, but this was now my third time photographing him and he was decidedly familiar to me.
Rocky comes to rest on Cape Hedge Beach
Although decomposition had continued since I had last seen him, it was not at all disgusting in any way. I didn’t even notice a smell this time. Instead I felt incredibly blessed to have this opportunity to be alone with him. It allowed me to really study him in-depth and to photograph a great deal of intricate detail. Such a fascinating creature packed into… 50 tons!
Remains further battered by Hurricane Sandy
It was through the newspaper that I discovered Rocky’s impending fate. His relocation to Cape Hedge Beach meant that heavy equipment would now have access to him.
Incredible flesh detail still remains
As reported in the Gloucester Daily Times, Tom French, a scientist from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries planned to extract the whale’s bones for a museum exhibit at the Seacoast Science Center of Rye, New Hampshire.
Physical details abound long after the finback's death
The 6-hour extraction process was to take place the next day, Nov. 1st, beginning at 8:00 a.m. I knew I had to be there. I couldn’t abandon Rocky now.
November 1st… Farewell
I arrived at Cape Hedge Beach first thing in the morning. From a distance I could see a front loader and group of people already at work. Rocky’s dismantling had begun.
The dismantling team at work
I approached cautiously, as I didn’t want to interfere with their process in any way. I began taking photos from a reasonable distance before gradually moving closer. After shooting for a bit, I was approached by Jim Chase, VP of the Seacoast Science Center. He had noticed me photographing the dismantling process and asked if I would be willing to share my photos with them. Without hesitation I told him I would be happy to do so. Rocky deserved no less from me.
Removal of the jawbone proves labor intensive
I reviewed all of my photos from my multiple days of shooting and selected 88 shots that I thought best represented Rocky and the work of the diligent volunteers. Those photos have been shared with the Seacoast Science Center as promised.
Blubber is very thick and removal requires a true team effort
Front loader gives size perspective to the finback's jawbone
Rocky’s New Life…
Whether the bones will be in good enough shape to reconstruct the skeleton is yet to be seen. Regardless, that which has been salvaged will be on display in one form or another next year at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, New Hampshire.
Both jawbones successfully removed
All I know is that one way or another, I will see my pal Rocky again!
~ Liz Mackney
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