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Argh! Whale Suspected in Sinking of Fisherman's Boat; 'Moby Dick'

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TRENTON, New Jersey -- Authorities suspect a 35-foot humpback whale whose carcass washed up on a southern New Jersey beach this week was the mysterious black object that a group of fishermen say hit their boat before it sank off the Delaware coast a week ago.

"Moby Dick," joked fisherman Ken Arters of Chester Springs, Pa.

Arters was among the seven sport fishermen who spent 46 hours in a 4-by-5-foot life raft - intended to hold only four people - until being plucked from the Atlantic Ocean by a Coast Guard rescue helicopter on Monday.

Authorities can't be sure, but Robert Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, who performed the necropsy (animal autopsy), said the young whale's injuries and estimated time of death seem to coincide with the time the fishermen say they hit the object.

The men started their trip Friday night but decided to head back to the Delaware shore late Saturday morning, content having caught four large tuna and wary of a choppy sea.

"Once the sea started to pick up, that was our cue to come in," Arters said.

Arters said he was standing toward the back of the 51-foot sport-fishing boat when he saw a dark object bobbing just below the dark blue water.

"It never surfaced," Arters said. "But it looked like a cross between a big oil tank and a tree trunk."

Then he heard a thud. He saw black smoke billowing from the starboard motor as the boat slowed. Waves crashed over the deck. When he heard the high water alarm coming from the motor room seconds later, he realized it was time to get off.

Arters said it couldn't have been more than a few minutes between the time the boat hit the object and when the seven piled into the tiny inflatable life raft. There was time for each to stuff a few bottles of water into their pockets and to grab some flares.

By Sunday, family members starting calling the bait shop near the Delaware marina the men had left to see if they had returned. The shop soon notified the Coast Guard.

"It wasn't abnormal to not hear from them, because you know how guy fishermen are," said Arters' wife, Laura. "I was still thinking they were on the boat. I had no idea they were floating on a raft."

On Monday morning, a Coast Guard helicopter search team spotted a flare 35 miles offshore and soon scooped up the men, who besides some salt-water rashes, were in good health.

The whale, however, was not so lucky.

Schoelkopf said the otherwise healthy whale was struck so hard on the side that its internal organs were coming out of its mouth. The blow, Schoelkopf said, "ruptured everything immediately."

The whale washed ashore Thursday in Wildwood Crest after being spotted floating the day before.

Arters said he didn't initially suspect that the object the boat struck was a whale, but that he wasn't surprised at the possibility.

"It kind of made sense with what I saw in the water," Arters said.

Schoelkopf said collisions between whales and boats aren't necessarily uncommon.

"It happens a lot, which people don't realize," he said. "But most of the time the collision is with a large freighter and there's no effect to the boat."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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