Following the appearance of a dead whale carcase off the coast of St Ives at the weekend, marine mammal research and rescue teams are trying to discover whether it is that of a young humpback whale that they had been monitoring off Godrevy over the last month.
British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) had been monitoring the whale from the 28th July when it was first seen by a marker buoy. The humpback disappeared on the 31st July, so they are therefore interested to learn if it is the same animal.
"It seemed to be attracted to the buoy as if it thought it was its mother", says Dave Jarvis, BDMLR coordinator for Cornwall. "We went out every few hours in our boat to monitor it and noticed that the wave action on the buoy caused a sound a bit like a whale's 'blow', when it exhales air, and wondered if the baby thought that was another whale. It was nuzzling the buoy like it was trying to feed from it. It was very thin and lethargic and obviously starving. We remained stationery and it kept coming up under our boat as it would under its mother. It was heartbreaking really."
The team watched over the six metre long whale for the next two weeks until, one day, if disappeared and was not seen again until a body was seen on Sunday floating off Hayle. The Cornwall Wildlife Trust Marine Strandings Network (MSN) had been on alert, expecting the bad news, and the team joined BDMLR to watch the movement of the whale's body in St Ives bay over the course of the day, waiting for it to strand on one of the beaches so that they could examine it. Unfortunately, late on Sunday evening, the whale became caught up in the winch line for the power cable that had been laid for the wave hub that is being sited off the north coast of Cornwall. BDMLR alerted the Nordica to the problem and they sent out a boat to free the whale from the line and tow the whale's body offshore as it was not safe for them to try to beach it.
BDMLR Operations Manager Stephen Marsh said "Looking at the few photographs that we've had of the carcase, it does look like this could be a humpback whale. They have incredibly long pectoral fins that are a third of the length of the body, and the remains of the dorsal fin on its back is a similar shape to the one viewed off the buoy. It's too much of a coincidence for it not to be the same one, but we need to be a bit cautious."
"We have never had a humpback whale strand in Cornwall before" said Caroline Curtis, duty Strandings Hotline coordinator, "and were waiting for the whale to strand so that we could take some samples from it for research. At least then we could learn something from this very sad outcome that might help us understand humpback whales better".
The body of the whale is very decomposed, and if it does strand, the public are strongly advised not to go near it. "It will be extremely putrid by now and very smelly" says Jan Loveridge, Marine Strandings Network coordinator, "and will certainly pose a health risk to anyone who touches it. When the fin whale stranded earlier this year on the north coast, we saw members of the public allowing their children to climb on it and some even took bones away. We should remind everyone that it's illegal to do this without a licence and they could be prosecuted. But more importantly they could become infected from contact with any marine animal carcass as they can carry diseases and should give it a very wide berth."
"Our team is authorised and trained to take samples for our colleagues at the Institute of Zoology, and others researching large whales," continues Jan, "and if DNA can be extracted, it may even be possible to trace which population the whale came from."
Humpback whales follow a vast migration route from their breeding grounds in the tropics to their feeding grounds in the North Atlantic. A single calf is born every two to three years and measures about 4.5 to 5 metres long. Adult males can reach up to 15 metres long and females up to 16 metres, although the average is shorter. They are listed as an endangered species in the Atlantic and only around 8,000 - 10,000 are estimated to be found in the North Atlantic, where they feed on small, schooling fish such as herring and mackerel.
The carcase has now beached and Dave and Lesley Jarvis have measured it at 5.9 metres.
It was a male and its baleen was small and still at an early stage of development, suggesting that the calf was still maternally dependent.
BDMLR Operations Manager