The most elusive of whales makes landfall on Angelsey & then Gwynedd

Dan Brown

It’s been a chock-a-block autumn for cetaceans but the recent stranding of a Pygmy Sperm Whale has drawn the most attention

First apologies for yet another blubber-loving post! I had intended on focusing on something furrier but unless you’ve had your head in the sand you cant help but have heard of the recent flurry of whale activity around the British coast, culminating in the stranding in of a Pygmy Sperm Whale on Anglesey, then Gwynedd, recently.

Pygmy Sperm Whale stranded on Newborough beach, Anglesey (photo Bem Murcott/Sea Watch Foundation)

Pygmy Sperm Whale stranded on Newborough beach, Anglesey (photo Bem Murcott/Sea Watch Foundation)

It’s been a remarkably varied autumn in many ways. For starters Humpbacks have been putting in an appearances, well, more like putting on shows for those in Norfolk, Skye, Caithness and Shetland, not to mention the regular Southern Irish animals. The former animal appears to be returning animal from last year, and whilst arriving a week later than in 2013, it seems to have departed on exactly the same day as it did in 2013, 17th November. Norfolk continued its great run of sightings with a Minke and then the welcome documented pod of Pilot whales, which pushed south down to Essex where they were successful herded back out to sea.

But back to Anglesey where the Pygmy Sperm Whale live stranded on Newborough beach. The animal was located and tended to very rapidly, and all credit to those involved, they managed to refloat the animal and off it swam. Sadly a few days later a second attempt at sunbathing for this animal proved rather too successful and it succumbed. Luckily the animal was discovered by Rhys Jones and Eddie Urbanski on Dinas Dinlle, Gwynedd, and they were able to inform the relevant authorities.

Pygmy Sperm Whale, Dinas Dinlle, Gwynedd. Nicely illustrates the unusual head shape (Photo: Rhys Jones)

Pygmy Sperm Whale, Dinas Dinlle, Gwynedd. Nicely illustrates the unusual head shape (Photo: Rhys Jones)

Whilst a sad event, it represents a great opportunity to find out a bit more about these amazingly rare and little understood animals. This is only the 11th stranding of this species in the UK in 25 years. A field necropsy conducted by Zoological Society of London and MEM found the animal to be a juvenile male and in moderate nutritional health. Whilst there was a large piece of plastic in the second stomach this was not thought to be the cause of the animals death and it is hoped that further tests will ascertain the exact cause.

The Kogia’s (Pygmy & Dwarf Sperm Whales) are quite remarkable animals. They are some of the most unobtrusive cetaceans and Dwarf, in particular, is widespread and in theory quite common. Most live sightings involve animals logging at the surface from which they sink without disturbing the water surface, to feed on cephalopods at great depths. There is evidence to suggest that they favour the slack areas of water to log in (these are often visible as silvery lines across the surface of the ocean). These slack lines occur when water masses of differing salinity meet. The resulting acoustic distortion allows the animals to rest in relative safety from sonar-dependent predators. Another string to their defence bow is the evolution of these species to resemble sharks with a pseudo-gill line, pointy snouts and prominent teeth.

Close-up of the head showing the pseudo-gill line (photo Bem Murcott/Sea Watch Foundation)

Close-up of the head showing the pseudo-gill line (photo Bem Murcott/Sea Watch Foundation)

Close up showing the remarkable teeth of the Pygmy Sperm Whale (Photo: Rhys Jones)

Close up showing the remarkable teeth of the Pygmy Sperm Whale (Photo: Rhys Jones)

Both these species should be on the radars of anyone exploring the deeper waters off the south-west approaches, western Ireland and south through Biscay and onward to Madeira and the Canary Islands.

If you’re interested in following more about British cetacean strandings in the UK then the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme – UK Strandings page on Facebook is well worth ‘Liking’.

Additionally Seawatch Foundation have an internship for which 2015 applicants may now apply. If you’re interested in learning more about cetaceans and marine mammal conservation then see the link below.

http://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/internships/

 

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