British Divers Marine Life Rescue
British Divers Marine Life Rescue (photo: Steve Marsh)
British Divers Marine Rescue


2016-01-23 11:03:40

Five sperm whales perish in Norfolk

On Saturday January 22nd 2016 at around 15.30hrs, British Divers Marine Rescue head office received a call from Humber coastguard to alert them to three whales close to the shore at Hunstanton.

A call was put out to BDMLR volunteers in Norfolk and Lincolnshire to ask them to attend if available. Kieran Copeland, a previous BDMLR Norfolk Area Coordinator who works as Animal Care supervisor at the local Sea Life Centre was on site and fed reports back to the office, while other volunteers were on their way.

Although initially reported as possible minke whales, it was obvious from the description that these were sperm whales.  One animal was in difficulty, still submerged but grounded and two more were seen further offshore.  One of these headed north and hopefully out into the North Sea, but one headed southwards into the Wash and towards Kings Lynn.

High tide was due at around 17.20hrs and as we are on spring tides with the full moon, there is a great variance between high and low tides resulting in a rapid falling of the tide after the high.  The stranded whale was 45 feet (13.7metre) long and weighing between 25 and 30 tonnes so dangerous to approach while it was still active in the water.

Four whales have been confirmed as definite sightings but there may be more in the area. Reports from the district council to the coastguard that there were six whales, and a posting on the Rare Bird Alert website that two whales had died on the beach was not confirmed and so was discounted as possible double-counting.

Sadly, with sperm whales being so large, their mass works against them and following a stranding their health begins to deteriorate rapidly.  There is little that can be done to save them once fully stranded or to relieve their suffering and major organ failure can set in within a few hours.  An attempt was made by the RNLI hovercraft later that evening to herd the animal into deeper water, but on a falling tide the animal did not have enough water beneath it and beached again on the underlying rocks.

BDMLR volunteers and personnel from the coastguard, RNLI, police, Sea Life Centre and RSPCA were on site and at approximately 23.15hrs, Kevin Murphy, the current BDMLR Area Coordinator for Norfolk, reported back that the beached animal had died. There have been no further reports of the other two whales, but it is feared that the one that headed south may have had difficulties later on the rapidly falling tide.

A team from the UK's Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme will perform a necropsy on the dead whale on Saturday 23rd January.  A report will be published in due course, but only once tissue and blood samples have been examined by specialist laboratories.

The local council is providing security to ensure public safety (whale can carry disease that can transfer to other mammals) and also to deter trophy hunters as it is illegal to take or own any part of a whale, dolphin or porpoise without a licence.  There have been recent prosecutions under this law.

Thanks are due to volunteers and personnel from all agencies for their assistance.

Photo credit: Gary Pearson. Please note that BDMLR does not currently have any photos or video of this incident

Update Sunday 24th January
Today, on the north west coast of the Wash, three more sperm whales have washed up dead. Two are at Gibraltar Point and one is at Skegness. These may be the same ones that were spotted from Hunstanton on Friday and as thought, probably were caught out but the Spring tides and the estuarine currents. The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme will attending Monday to perform post mortem examinations and take samples for analysis.

Update Monday 25th January
At 14.20 we received a call about another sperm whale that has washed up dead, south of Gibraltar Point.  This is not one of the three from yesterday as CSIP have confirmed that they have checked those, so it does look as if reports of six whales being seen on Friday may have been correct after all.

Notes for Editors
Whilst such stranding events involving more than one sperm whale are unusual in recent times, they are not unprecedented.  Last week, five sperm whales stranded and died on the Dutch island of Texel in the Wadden Sea and on the same day, three more washed in dead on the German coast of the sea, close to where two had died the weekend before.  One theory is that these events, that used to happen more often prior to mechanised whaling, may become more frequent again as populations recover following the protection of the species and the whaling moratorium in the 1980s.

Sperm whales feed mainly on cephalopods such as deep sea octopus and squid, gaining water from the breakdown of the fluids in their food.  There is little food for them in the North Sea and so stranded animals are usually already suffering from dehydration.  This, plus the effects that their huge mass has when beached, can lead to rapid deterioration in their health and lead to major organ failure.  However, the animals that recently stranded in the Netherlands were reported to have a good body condition.

Most of the sperm whales around the UK and in the North West Atlantic are male.  Females and calves tend to remain in warmer tropical waters, before the male calves leave between the age of 8 and 20, swimming to the sub-polar regions to join bachelor groups. Becoming sexually active between 20 and 25, they will return to the tropics to seek a mate, but as competition is fierce, rarely mate until they are older due to their lack of social standing in the group.  Bull sperm whales reach sexual maturity around the age of 50 and by then will have left the bachelor group to roam the seas. One has been known to live to 77 years old.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed mammal in the world, and males are larger than females of the same age. Adult males grow to be about 50-60 feet (17-20 metres) long, weighing about 36-45 tonnes. Females are smaller, about 33-40 feet (11-13 metres) long, weighing about 13-16 tonnes.

Stephen Marsh
Operations Manager – British Divers Marine Life Rescue

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