This story was updated on Monday at 3:30 p.m. to include information about the whale’s burial.
When an unfriendly-looking animal washed up on the north end of Hilton Head Thursday, Amber Kuehn got a call to come check it out.
Beachgoers snapped photos of a badly-decomposed, teeth-baring animal, which Kuehn, a Bluffton- based marine biologist who regularly performs necropsies on animals that wash up on the islands’ shores, identified as an 11-foot pygmy sperm whale.
The adult male whale, located on Mitchelville Beach near Hilton Head Plantation, had likely been dead for around three weeks, Kuehn told The Island Packet. She said she saw no signs of injuries, which means the animal was probably sick before he died.
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“It did smell and it was impossible to miss,” said Jonathan Jones, who was walking on the beach when he came across the whale.
This is the second pygmy sperm whale to wash up on Hilton Head this year. The first one was discovered on July 4 around the Westin hotel in Port Royal Plantation, Kuehn said.
“It’s uncommon, but not outside the realm of possibility,” Kuehn said. “I usually deal with one or two pygmy sperm whales a year on our shores.”
Kuehn collected skin samples from the whale on Saturday and put her arm inside his mouth to count all 28 teeth. Pygmy sperm whales only have teeth on the bottoms of their mouths, Kuehn said.
Despite their vicious appearance, pygmy sperm whales generally swim alone and rarely approach the water’s surface or boats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The whales typically live to 23 years old and eat squid, octopi, fish, crabs and shrimp. An average pygmy sperm whale can dive up to 1,000 feet in search of food, according to NOAA.
Kuehn said the whale was “funky-looking,” and half buried in the sand.
The samples she took of the whale’s skin and blubber will be sent to the NOAA lab in Charleston for testing and cataloging, Kuehn said.
Since the whale washed up near Hilton Head Plantation, Kuehn said the gated community is responsible for burying it on the beach.
As of Monday at 3:45 p.m., Jones said the whale had been buried on the Mitchelville beach.
“(They) gave him a nice headstone,” Jones said of the drawing in the sand near the burial site.
Whoever made the headstone seems to have also named the whale — Billy.
As for beachgoers who encounter the animal or the burial site, Kuehn said to avoid it. Since it is a decomposing mammal, it can pass on disease to other mammals such as humans or dogs.
Last week, a live 50-foot north Atlantic right whale was spotted off the coast of Hilton Head.