15 February 2013

A close encounter with the world's smallest whale

Walvis Bay, Namibia
14 February 2013

The rough road through the salt pans, lined with greater and lesser flamingos, glossy white pelicans and scurrying speckled waders, led us to the salt works' pump station. A good 50 metres and more from the waters edge lay a long, thin creature, bedecked in a patchwork jacket of red, purple, black and white that seemed ironically jaunty and carefree. Beneath the soaked rags that provided protection from the sun and drying wind, lay a forlorn pygmy right whale, the world's smallest baleen whale*.
Pygmy right whale (Caperea marginata), & pump station in the background

Very few people have ever seen a pygmy right whale, and although I recently completed a scientific publication on this species**, summarising all the records we have of pygmy right whales occurring in Namibian waters, I too had only seen the skeletons of pygmy right whales before. Pygmy right whales live only in the southern hemisphere, have been seen alive at sea only a handful of times, and much of what we know about them comes from studies of stranded animals in Australia and New Zealand (see the Te Papa blog on the dissection of a pygmy right whale). But here, under her multicoloured sunscreen, was a sleek, smooth hydrodynamic body, black on top fading to blue-grey on the sides and a white belly; an offshore whale in a decidedly onshore environment. No doubt stressed, the whale mostly kept her eyes closed as we covered her completely with extra towels and a bedsheet I had stuffed into my bag, keeping the blowholes on the top of her head uncovered so she could breathe. We then soaked the covers with seawater to keep her cool and to prevent her skin from drying out.

The pygmy right whale reaches about 6 metres in length at adulthood (most baleen whales are considerably larger, with the blue whale reaching up to 30 metres). The little visitor at the pump station, however, was just over 3 metres in length, indicating that she was a young animal, perhaps only a year old. Nonetheless, she likely weighed over 400 kg and we did not think we would be able to lift her and carry her across the mud to the water's edge while the tide was still low. So for three hours, we waited, watched, applied sunscreen to ourselves and seawater over the whale, and kept an eye on the jackal that was loitering in the background.

The pygmy right whale was covered to prevent sunburn.
It's so rare to encounter pygmy right whales that any stranding provides a unique opportunity to find out just a little more about the species. So of course, while we waited for the tide we collected what information we could - body measurements, photographs of every part of her and a skin sample which will be used for genetic analysis. 

The tide was rising, and by four o'clock it had suddenly crept around our feet as we struggled into our wetsuits. The stretcher that was purchased in 2009 for the Namibian Strandings Network, funded by the Walvis Bay Municipality, was put to good use and soon we were sliding a young pygmy right whale down the mudflats towards deeper water. After taking a while to get her muscles warmed up and her swimming motion co-ordinated, she started to move her tail more strongly and we released the stretcher, still supporting her gently from underneath. Moments later she kicked her tail and swam out into the bay. There was no further sign of her, so we could only hope that she had found her way around Pelican Point and out into the Atlantic Ocean. 

Simon, Hannah and Monica recording measurement data.

Many people were involved in this rescue. Thanks to Antonie Potgieter and colleague at the saltworks, who stood by until we arrived and provided the all-important covering to protect the whale from the sun. Naude Dreyer & Nico Robberts assisted the Namibian Dolphin Project team. Thanks also to Sandwich Harbour 4x4 for bringing along three enthusiastic Swiss tourists who provided the extra muscles needed to carry the whale out to deeper waters!

* Baleen whales are whales without teeth - instead, they have plates of baleen (called 'whalebone' in the past), made from keratin (as are our fingernails), through which they sieve the seawater, straining out the tiny animals on which they feed.  

**R.H. Leeney, K. Post, P.B. Best, C.J. Hazevoet, S.H. Elwen. Pygmy right whale records from Namibia. African Journal of Marine Science (in press). 

Update, March 2013: 
Many thanks to Marc Vogt for making and posting a video of the pygmy right whale refloatation, which can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6N33jZ6zwMU.   

1 comment:

Philip said...

Stunning stuff, Ruth! Amazing encounter...

well done to you all