Whale Strandings – the harsh reality of nature.

In the past 6 months there have been over 10 whale carcasses washed up, including a rare Sperm Whale, in the Garden Route. Depending on where they washed up, their handling varied from leaving them in situ to burying them or removing the remains for disposal elsewhere.

Scientists from the Plett Stranding Network and Cape Nature sampling a Sperm Whale carcass on Swartvlei Beach.

Where possible, sampling was performed for DNA profiling and parasite collection. Generally, with the carcasses there is a morbid curiosity which will attract the public to have a look and if the carcass is not too decayed, to take the inevitable selfie. Afterwards everyone gets on with their life and the natural services of ecology continue with the slow process of recycling what is left.

In the same period of the washed up carcasses in the Garden Route, three live whales have washed up on beaches, two Humpback Whales and a True Beaked Whale. The stranding of a live whale evokes a different response. There is a primal urge to assist the helpless leviathan, a herculean task for which we are ill equipped.

Video of the stranded female Humpback Whale at Swartvlei Beach. Watch here

Read about the female Humpback Whale stranding in : Death of a Whale

The reality is that to even plan a rescue of a stranded whale there are legal, environmental, safety and practical issues to consider.

Legal Procedure :

South Africa has a comprehensive legal protocol in place to protect marine mammals, not only whales, from exploitation both in the ocean and washed up. This is administrated under the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and any effort to sample, assist or dispose of a stranded mammal requires a permit from the DEA.

In the Southern Cape, while the DEA doesn’t have personnel to attend to each and every stranding, permission has been granted to NGO’s, of which The Plett Stranding Network and SMART are both active in their respective regions. These are NGO’s that draw on scientists and volunteers to attend to all stranded marine life.

For larger marine mammal strandings and wash ups, SANParks are asked to assist with the disposal of carcasses.

In addition, scientists from both SANParks and Cape Nature have permission to attend to stranded marine animals. For the disposal of a whale carcass, a municipality then is granted permission to intervene when it is a threat to human health.

Stranding Report :
Once a stranded marine animal is reported, depending on its geographical location, it will be managed under the auspices of the relevant NGO. In the case of smaller marine mammals the condition of the animal will be accessed, treatment provided if required and a safe return to the ocean planned when suitable.

If dead, DNA and additional sampling will be taken and the carcass either buried or if in good condition, sent to a research institution.

The problem arises when a large marine mammal washes up alive on the beach. While a dolphin or seal is manageable, a whale is more difficult.

The female Humpback Whale that washed up alive on the Swartvlei beach on the 29th June 2018 measured 8.83m, an estimated 30tons.

Sadly she died and was subsequently buried.

The front end loader struggled to move the 30ton Humpback Whale carcass on its own and need the assistance of a TLB to maneuver the carcass to the burial pit.

For her burial, it took a front end loader and a TLB over an hour to move her carcass a mere 100m. Let that sink in. Two earth moving machines struggled to move a 30 ton whale carcass. What was remarkable while watching the procedure was how flexible the carcass was. While the loader pushed, the carcass merely bulged and as soon as pressure was released, it returned to its original position. It took a synchronised effort between the two machines to successfully move the carcass.

The male Humpback Whale that washed up in Wilderness on the 28th December was in poor condition as can be seen from the drop in body profile behind the head. His blubber was only 10cm thick.

The Humpback Whale that washed up on the Wilderness beach on the 28th December 2018 was a 10.2m male which was located in shallow water, similar to the Swartvlei whale, though the beach shelved off more steeply. It was an incoming tide and he received a pounding from the waves.

A valiant attempt to rescue him was made by the lifeguards, ten of whom tried to push him back into the sea.

The reality was that their efforts were in vein on two counts, firstly the sheer mass of the whale and secondly the reason it washed up.

At 10.2m and in it’s condition, it would have weighed between 25 and 30 tons, and while their heart was in it, ten people pushing that size whale had no chance of moving it into deeper water.

At both of these strandings I was asked why can’t a boat pull them out. The vessels required to do so in a surf zone are not available in the Garden Route. Besides not having the boat capacity and suitably strong rope available, the danger of operating in the surf zone would require rope in excess of 300m long. The weight alone of this rope would make operations difficult. In addition, attachment of the rope to a stranded whale would be extremely difficult. It can not merely be attached to the whale. A harness would have to be placed around the whale to reduce muscular damage (if attached to the tail and skin damage if tied around it), an impossible task when the whale is lying on the ground.

Another aspect to consider is that, had the whale been re-floated and dragged out to sea, would it have survived? The reality is probably not.

The combined pressure on internal organs from lying on the sand and the continual battering by waves does a lot of damage to a stranded whale.

In the ocean the weight of whales is supported by the water around them and by being stranded, even in shallow water, the internal organs will sustain damage, especially in rough surf conditions. Soft tissue like the liver, which can represent close to 20% of body mass would be damaged which would further compromise any chance of recovery. Though I can’t confirm it, a visual assessment at 20h00 on the 28th December, was that the left pectoral fin was broken, probably from rolling in the surf. This is a similar injury that the Swartvlei whale sustained and would have further hampered its swimming ability.

Death is a natural process of life :
As to why the whale washed up, there are a few factors to consider. Firstly, he could have been ill and weak, rendering him incapable of swimming once stranded. On the day of the stranding the coastline experienced very strong SE winds and rough seas which were most likely responsible for him washing ashore.

Secondly the time of year plays a major role. Humpback Whales migrate between the tropics and the southern Oceans and are seen along the South African coastline between April and November. By washing up at the end of December indicates either old age or illness prevented the whale from keeping up with the other migrating whales and that death would have been inevitable. A good indication of his poor condition was evidenced in the thickness of his blubber which measured a mere 10cm thick, less than half the thickness of the female that washed up on Swartvlei which had blubber 25cm thick. This alone indicates an under nourished animal which would be weak and unable to continue the annual migration.

It is important to remember that animals in any population die from disease and old age.

That wind and sea conditions washed an ill and dying whale up onto a beach was the indifference of nature. Yes, it was a traumatic event to witness, but had it died at sea, it would have floated for a week or two, been scavenged on by sharks and then sank into the depths of the ocean to feed an ecosystem on the sea floor the fate of most whale deaths.

The Future :
The combination of climate change, sea temperature increases, ocean levels rising, associated wind pattern changes and an increasing population of whales along the coastline of South Africa, we can expect whale carcass wash ups and live strandings to occur and need to be prepared on how to handle each event. The stranding groups are well equipped to deal with smaller animals, but the sheer bulk of an adult whale poses a huge challenge to any organization. An understanding and balance of the ecological, individual health and legal conditions with assist in developing protocols for the future.

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5 thoughts on “Whale Strandings – the harsh reality of nature.

  1. This is beautifully written… may we at S.M.A.R.T plse share the link on our fb post? I would also like to know who wrote this please?

    1. Hi Tersia, please do. I wrote it so that the public understands the crucial role that SMART and the Plett Stranding Network do in the area as well as the practicalities of a whale stranding – very different to a seal or dolphin.

  2. For me this was worth reading. Thank you for taking away so many heart’s confusion. I am sure everyone that reads this will now have a better understanding

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