Swimmers ride dying sperm whale in Florida

Carcass of a dead sperm whale next to the pier at Deerfield Beach, Fla. NOAA

Officials in Florida are investigating a report that swimmers might have been trying to ride a sickly sperm whale before it died off the coast of an Atlantic beach.

The 35-foot-long creature was spotted Sunday (Dec. 16) morning just off Pompano Beach and never quite stranded. As it floated close to the shore, a woman from a nearby condo snapped a picture that allegedly shows two people paddling out to the whale and one getting on top of it. That witness told local NBC station WTVJ-TV she saw the swimmers approach the whale twice, adding that she believed the creature was still alive at the time, since she saw its tail flapping.

Her testimony could land those beachgoers in hot water, as close encounters of this kind are illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Blair Mase, NOAA's southeast marine mammal stranding coordinator, explained to LiveScience.

Mase said wildlife officials didn't know about the whale-riding report at the time of a preliminary examination of the dead animal. But she said they did notice "some unusual markings" on the underweight, not-quite full-grown female whale. [The 10 Strangest Animal Discoveries]

Sperm whales are common in deeper, offshore waters in the region and, on average, just one to two strandings occur per year, Mase said. When the whales get so close to the shore, that's usually a sign that they're sick or injured — and it certainly doesn't help to be mounted by a human.

"Harassing a whale in a state like this could lead to its demise," Mase said, noting that approaching such a powerful, unpredictable animal could also spell serious danger for humans.

While police are taking charge of investigating the whale-riding report, researchers could provide a clearer picture of what happened to the whale by examining its body. By Monday, the carcass had washed ashore near a pier at Deerfield Beach. Wanting to keep the unsightly corpse away from the touristy area, local officials had wildlife specialists tow it about a mile out to sea Monday afternoon.

Mase told LiveScience her team is hoping to drag the whale back onto the beach eventually so that they can perform a full necropsy and determine the cause of death. (It's not possible to do this animal autopsy out at sea. "Too many sharks," Mase said.)

Florida, no stranger to strange news, has been over this before. Just in October, a St. Petersburg woman turned herself in after damning photos surfaced showing her riding a manatee at Fort DeSoto Park. At the time, reports suggested she could have faced up to 60 days in jail and a possible fine of $500 for her crime.

Getting within 100 yards of marine mammals is illegal, and the limits are even stricter for more seriously endangered species. For example, you're not allowed to get within 500 yards of right whales, Mase said. With only 300 to 400 in existence, North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered in the world.

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