By the time Brian Sharp saw the whale dead on an Edgartown beach, her jet black skin was pockmarked by hungry seagulls, her baleen had been dislodged from her mouth, and thick rope was wrapped tightly — as it had been for the last 17 months — around the most narrow part of her tail.

But it wasn’t time, yet, for the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's marine mammal rescue team to study the entanglement that appears to have caused her death. First, on that cold Wednesday morning, he had to get the whale back out to sea.

“Our biggest thing is going to be a re-float," he said. "As you can see from this beach, the animal is below the high tide line. There's no room for us to do this necropsy here.”

The necropsy — or animal autopsy — set to take place the next day would be a rare dissection for one of the last 350 North Atlantic right whales. It needed to be done in a clear, dry spot.

So just before a 3 o’clock high tide, Sharp’s team tied one end of a rope around the whale, and a skiff brought the other end to a tugboat waiting offshore.

“Yes, we're ready to go,” IFAW coordinator Misty Neimeyer said into her walkie-talkie.

Sharp and Neimeyer watched as the tow rope came taut, and the tugboat began to slowly drag the 11-ton whale off the beach.

“Come on, come on,” he pleaded, as the whale carcass hung up, and then started slowly to move again.

“There it goes,” Sharp said, as the tugboat pulled the animal fully into the waves.

Later that night, the whale would be brought to a marina, loaded onto a truck, and driven to an inland forested site for the necropsy.

This was the last time the young female would ever touch the water.

An injured whale laying on a beach, with a tugboat in the water behind it.
A tugboat prepares to pull 5120 off the Edgartown beach. IFAW researchers affixed a buoy to her flipper to keep track of the whale.
Eve Zuckoff CAI

A difficult history

Scientists called this whale 5120 — she didn’t make it to an age when right whales start getting names. But in the same way parents keep photos of their children, researchers had captured dozens of moments from this whale’s short life, a life which offers important insight into a species on the edge of extinction.

Some of 5120’s first photos, from off the coast of Nantucket, show her just a few feet away from mother, Squilla. Squilla, herself, has been entangled at least 3 times in 15 years.

“That’s most right whales,” notes Scott Landry grimly. Landry leads the disentanglement team at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown.

Over the course of her first year, 5120 and her mother were spotted traveling through waters off Florida, Georgia, New York, and Massachusetts. But when 5120 was a year-and-half old, still a juvenile, she was seen alone in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, off Canada. And for the first time, she was seen with her tail entangled.

“So we have to ask the questions: where did she encounter this gear? How long has she been carrying it for?” Landry said.

A whale's tail on a beach, with a human-placed number 5 on it.
Right whale 5120 on a Cape Cod beach.
Eve Zuckoff CAI

The CCS team was eager to disentangle her. But the rope kept getting tighter.

It was as if someone put a collar around a puppy’s neck and never widened it as the animal grew.

At one point, when 5120 was in Cape Cod Bay, Landry’s team spent 3 days on the water following her around with a specially adapted grappling hook. They threw it from a small boat towards the entangling rope, hoping it would catch on and cut through.

“But once she heard the sound of the grapple hit the water, she stopped feeding and she started becoming evasive,” Landry recalled. “So every time we would go in her direction, she would go in the opposite direction.”

Bad weather soon kept the disentanglement team at the dock, and 5120 left local waters. No one saw her for a few months. But this past June, she was seen once again in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. She had taken a turn for the worse.

“She was trying her best to be a right whale,” Landry said. “But she was getting thin. Her body was more covered with whale lice. Her skin was starting to deteriorate. These are signals that this is a whale that is going downhill. And then, after that, she was found dead on Martha's Vineyard.”

From beach to forest, from ocean to earth

After the body of 5120 was pulled off the Edgartown beach by the tugboat, it was brought to a piece of forestland picked in collaboration with the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe. From the moment she came ashore, the Tribe had begun a conversation about claiming 5120 as one of their own.

An aerial photo of two whales, one large and one small.
5120 is seen with her mother, Squilla, in April, 2021.
Center For Coastal Studies Right Whale Ecology Program

“The chief has indigenous, ancestral rights to creatures like this that come ashore, because that animal has washed ashore in our territory,” said Jason Baird, the medicine man for the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe.

Baird spent time with 5120 in the forest the night before researchers performed her necropsy. He joined with elder women to bless the whale, make offerings, and weep for a being they consider family.

“Some of our oral history tells us about Moshup, a great benefactor to our people,” he said. “When Moshup decided that it was time for him to move on and leave this area, he gave some of his children the option to become whales themselves.”

Last week, the remains of 5120 were buried in that forest. In about a year, the Tribe plans to use some of her bones for education and art, just as its citizens have traditionally done.

Scientists hope 5120’s legacy will grow. They collected hundreds of samples during the necropsy that will be used to study right whales as a species.

And, beyond the science, they hope 5120’s story — one defined by a long entanglement and short life — can be used to save other whales from the same fate.