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Sunday, 18 February, was World Whale Day, a day to honour these majestic aquatic animals, which play a vital role in the ecosystem. NSRI regularly assists whales in distress, whether beached or entangled in fishing nets and recently assisted two dwarf sperm whales in Melkbosstrand.

Have you ever seen – or heard of – a dwarf sperm whale?

If your answer is no, you’re not alone. NSRI coxswain Terence Lawson had also never heard of such an animal – until 18 January, when he found himself joining other rescue services and members of the public to help save two of these unusual marine mammals after they beached in Melkbosstrand.

“In eleven years of being involved in sea rescue, I had never seen or heard of a dwarf sperm whale!” he says.

Not much larger than many dolphins, dwarf sperm whales are not often sighted at sea as they are deep-water animals, and most of what is known about them comes from the examination of stranded specimens.

Members of the public were attempting to help a mother and her calf back into the sea when Terence and other NSRI crew arrived on the scene and took over.

“You could definitely see there was a bond between the two,” says Terence. “When we brought the little one to the mother, it went up against the mother, trying to suckle. It probably wasn’t more than three days old.”

The two animals were released back into the ocean but beached again shortly thereafter about 100 metres further up the beach.

It’s not always known why whales beach, although it is theorised that it may be due to injury, sickness, old age or navigation errors. In this case, the mother had an injury on her pectoral fin, the source of which may have contributed to the beaching. There is also a chance that, having drawn close to shore to give birth, the mother may have become disoriented.

“My biggest concern was that they were moving closer towards Koeberg Nuclear Power Station – if they beached again beyond the boundary, we would then have had to apply for permits and cut through a lot of red tape just to get to the whales,” says Terence.

After repeated attempts to assist both animals back to sea, the mother finally swam away and did not beach again that day in the area – however, sadly, the following day, her body was discovered in the Koeberg area, where she had beached again and died.

Her calf, too, did not make it.

After beaching once again that day, and obviously in distress, the decision was taken to euthanise the calf to end its suffering.

Gregg Oelofse, of the City of Cape Town Marine Animal Stranding Network, said the decision to humanely euthanise the animal is made in accordance with the approved marine animal stranding protocols, in a coordinated decision made by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE), marine scientists, the SPCA and City of Cape Town authorities.

The Marine Animal Stranding Network is run by volunteers throughout South Africa’s coastal towns and has saved many animal lives – they work closely with the NSRI, which often supplies resources to aid in rescues.

“It’s really important for the public to understand that we do not make the decision to euthanise beached whales lightly,” says Gregg. “Ample data has been gathered over time which shows that for certain species of whale, the chances of successfully returning them to the water once beached are very slim. In the vast majority of cases, they simply beach again. The decision to euthanise them is the humane thing to do if the animal is in obvious, prolonged distress. We’re not sure why these particular dwarf sperm whales beached, but we do know that they usually beach in pairs, and refloating them is seldom successful as they are deep sea animals and would need to be transported very far out to sea, back to depths of hundreds of metres. Even then… They usually beach for a reason in the first place and would likely do so again.”

The experience for all involved was bitter-sweet: while organisations and the public pulled together with the common goal of trying to save these marine mammals, ultimately they were unsuccessful.

“It was a rare experience,” says Terence. “One that I will cherish. It’s sad, but, at the same time, it’s also nature.”


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