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