The nearly 11-foot-long whale, which was near death, weighed about 740 pounds but should have easily tipped the scales at more than 1,000 pounds. It died shortly after police responded, but it wasn't until a necropsy was performed that the shocking cause of death was revealed.
Someone had shot the whale.
The wound near its blow hole had closed and faded somewhat, indicating the animal had been shot as long as a month ago, said Bob Schoelkopf, co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. The bullet lodged in the whale's jaw, causing an infection that left it unable to eat.
"This poor animal literally starved to death," Schoelkopf said. "It was wandering around and slowly starving to death because of the infection. Who would do that to an innocent animal?"
That's what federal law enforcement authorities want to know as well. Whales are among the species protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Violators can be fined up to $100,000 and sent to prison for a year.
The whale washed up on the beach at Allenhurst, a small Monmouth County beach town just north of Asbury Park on Sept. 24.
Schoelkopf said the whale could have been shot anywhere on the East Coast, given the amount of time that it spent losing weight before dying. He said authorities think the bullet, which was recovered from the animal's jaw, came from a .30-caliber rifle.
He said shark fishermen commonly carry guns to shoot large sharks they catch before bringing them aboard boats, and speculated that someone on a boat where fishing was slow decided to use the whale for target practice.
"Whoever did this couldn't have been out there alone and we're hoping somebody who was there speaks up," Schoelkopf said.
He said there have been no other reports of whales being shot on the East Coast, but there remains an active investigation into the fatal shootings of several grey seals in Massachusetts earlier this year.