S­tran­ded w­ha­le’s sad swansong

Ma­ri­ne bi­o­lo­gist Mark Dixon wit­nes­ses the last mo­ments of a s­tran­ded w­ha­le and la­ments our lack of in­fra­struc­tu­re to pre­vent such in­ci­dents.

Knysna-Plett Herald - - Voorblad - * Mark Dixon is a ma­ri­ne bi­o­lo­gist and an a­vi­fau­nal spe­ci­a­list who gui­des na­tu­re tou­rs and con­ducts field re­se­arch for en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­ses­sments.

“Good mor­ning Mark, we ha­ve a s­mall w­ha­le s­tran­ded in the surf. Do you know who we should call?”

It was 10:00 on F­ri­day 29 Ju­ne and the call was from War­ren Pa­ge of the Sed­ge­field NSRI who was on stand­by at Swart­vlei be­ach w­he­re a ju­ve­ni­le hump­back w­ha­le had s­tran­ded in the shal­low surf.

Ar­med with on­ly di­ve ge­ar and al­truis­tic thoug­hts and ma­king calls to as­cer­tain which aut­ho­ri­ty to con­tact, I he­a­ded do­wn to the be­ach. Sad­ly the­re are no re­spon­se u­nits for w­ha­le res­cue in the Gar­den Rou­te and the two ex­perts re­fer­red to we­re u­na­vai­la­ble – one at an in­ter­na­ti­o­nal con­fe­ren­ce. S­tan­ding waist deep in poun­ding surf look­ing in the hu­ge stres­sed eye of a s­tran­ded w­ha­le brings ho­me the re­a­li­ty of their sheer si­ze and the vi­tal need for a­de­qua­te e­quip­ment and trai­ned crew for any success­ful res­cue at­tempt of s­tran­ded w­ha­les.

W­he­re are the pro­to­cols?

W­hi­le this is the first live stran­ding in the past 15 y­e­ars that I am a­wa­re of, the­re ha­ve been mo­re than 15 car­cas­ses was­hed up be­t­ween Kaai­mans and the Knys­na He­ads in the sa­me pe­ri­od of ti­me. With the in­flu­en­ce of pol­lu­ti­on and, in par­ti­cu­lar, plas­tic pol­lu­ti­on, it is be­co­ming im­pe­ra­ti­ve that the Gar­den Rou­te has a­de­qua­te pro­to­cols, e­quip­ment and backup trai­ned per­son­nel in pla­ce to as­sist s­tran­ded w­ha­les and sam­ple was­hed-up car­cas­ses.

W­hi­le in the surf with the w­ha­le I re­cor­ded two wounds, one ap­prox­i­ma­te­ly 55cm in di­a­me­ter to the up­per rig­ht of the ge­ni­tal groo­ve and the se­cond a­bout 5cm in di­a­me­ter to the rig­ht of the ge­ni­tal groo­ve. The lar­ger wound was he­a­vi­ly in­fes­ted with w­ha­le li­ce. Col­lecti­ve­ly e­ver­yo­ne had de­ci­ded that the w­ha­le was a fe­ma­le, which was con­fir­med la­ter by the pre­sen­ce of mam­ma­ry slits la­te­ral to the ge­ni­tal groo­ve.

Last bre­ath of a gre­at cre­a­tu­re

At 13:00 she ma­de one last at­tempt to swim out to sea, al­most re­a­ched the back li­ne but got stuck on a sand­bar be­fo­re being was­hed back to­ward the be­ach. Stuck in the shal­low sand, at 13:50 she star­ted sin­ging, a des­pe­ra­te­ly sad song that re­ver­be­ra­ted through my chest and was he­ard by sup­por­ters on the be­ach, lo­we­red her he­ad and died at 13:54.

With her pas­sing star­ted the se­cond pha­se of re­a­li­sing the in­a­de­qua­cy of pre­pa­ra­ti­on for w­ha­le stran­dings in the Gar­den Rou­te. The bur­ning que­s­ti­on was, “Why had she s­tran­ded and died?” With this in mind, Ky­le S­mith from SANParks, who had re­pla­ced War­ren Pa­ge, con­tacted two po­ten­ti­al ex­perts to con­duct an au­top­sy to check sto­mach con­tents. A­gain, neither was a­vai­la­ble.

S­cien­ce ser­ved to so­me ex­tent

On Sa­tur­day mor­ning, a col­la­bo­ra­ti­on of Ky­le S­mith and Way­ne Mey­er from Ca­pe Na­tu­re with ran­gers from the Gou­kam­ma Na­tu­re Re­ser­ve do­cu­men­ted bi­o­me­tric me­a­su­re­ments and took so­me tis­sue sam­ples. Un­for­tu­na­te­ly, due to in­a­de­qua­te e­quip­ment, the po­si­ti­on that the w­ha­le was lying in and not ha­ving e­quip­ment a­vai­la­ble to shift her car­cass, it was im­pos­si­ble to sam­ple her sto­mach.

W­hi­le the full po­ten­ti­al of gat­her­ing in­for­ma­ti­on from the fresh car­cass wa­sn’t re­a­li­sed, one ad­van­ta­ge be­fo­re she was bu­ried was the le­ar­ning ex­pe­rien­ce that her pre­sen­ce pro­vi­ded. A few school groups, ran­ger trai­nees and ho­me-school­ing stu­dents vi­si­ted the car­cass to get first-hand ob­ser­va­ti­ons of a spe­cies which so few pe­op­le e­ver get to ex­pe­rien­ce.

On F­ri­day 6 Ju­ly the car­cass was bu­ried u­sing e­arth-mo­ving e­quip­ment from Knys­na Mu­ni­ci­pa­li­ty and SANParks.

P­ho­tos: Mark Dixon

With the be­a­ched w­ha­le is Way­ne Mey­er (y­el­low jac­ket), Tee­gan Pe­trus (cen­ter) and T­hem­ba­ni Nam­ba. INSERT: The hump­back, s­tran­ded on the be­ach.

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