Whale washes ashore in West Bay

A caller to 911 emergency services Tuesday afternoon reported a dolphin had washed up on the beach by Spanish Bay Reef in West Bay.

Gervais' beaked whale

Gervais’ beaked whale. Photo: Cliodhna Doherty

The Department of Environment attended the scene and determined the creature was some sort of beaked whale and veterinarians from St. Matthews University later confirmed that it was an Antillean Beaked Whale, also known as the Gervais’ Beaked Whale.

Catherine Redfern of the Cayman Wildlife Rescue Centre said 911 told her that some children had been on shore watching the whale for about four hours before it came ashore and stranded on the beach, at which point they called emergency services.

‘The children indicated that the whale was alive when they initially found it and they could see it was making some attempts to breath, but it appears it died shortly after washing up on the coast,’ said Timothy Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment.

The whale was removed from the beach with the assistance of a crew from Caribbean Utilities Company, which provided a vehicle equipped with a crane. Veterinarians from St. Matthew’s University were performing a necropsy on Thursday morning to try to determine how the whale died.

Mr. Austin explained that when whales come ashore there is an international obligation to report the details to the Caribbean Stranding Network and the department will be gathering as much information as possible, including the dimensions of the whale, at which point they will upload it into the database.

The whales are said to eat fish and squid and it is assumed they live in small groups or pairs. It is believed they are deep divers staying underwater for over 20 minutes.

According to the Marine Bio organization (http://marinebio.org/) ‘Little is known about these whales but several unusual strandings of Antillean Beaked whales were associated with naval activities in the Canary Islands, and again in September 2002 during a NATO manoeuvre involving the use of low frequency sonar.’

The Caribbean Stranding Network has a record of another Antillean Beaked Whale stranding on the coast of Little Cayman, on the 24th of July 1992.

The IUCN, the organisation that determines how endangered or threatened various things are has listed the Antillean Beaked Whale in Appendix 2, but classifies the species as data deficient, because there is so little information about the population.

‘There are a wide variety of marine mammals swimming off the coast of Cayman, but they are rarely seen by people,’ said Mr. Austin. ‘The Atlantic Spotted Dolphin and the smaller Spinner Dolphin are probably the most common and frequently sighted marine mammals in our area.’

FYI

• Gervais’ beaked whale has a prominent, slender beak with only two teeth which, whilst obvious in males, are not visible in females. These whales are dark grey to black on the back, fading to light grey or white on the underside. The head is relatively small with a slightly bulging forehead and the dorsal fin is situated towards the tail end of the back.

Inhabits warm to tropical pelagic waters.

• Although the first specimen of this species was found in the English Channel, it has only been found in the Atlantic Ocean since. The range has been deduced from stranding sites, and is possibly inaccurate, but is thought to stretch from New York to Trinidad on the western side of the Atlantic and from Ireland to Guinea Bissau on the eastern side.

• This species is assumed to be a deep diver that only comes close to the shore to give birth, as many strandings are females with their newborn calves, and sightings of this whale are extremely rare.

• Gervais’ beaked whale is nearly impossible to distinguish from other beaked whales when sighted at sea.

• Females are thought to be larger than males, becoming sexually mature at 4.5 m and giving birth to highly dependent young of just 2.1 m. The species is known to live to at least 27 years in the wild.

They are thought to live in couples or small groups, and fighting between males is assumed to occur as stranded males are highly scarred. However, the distinctive tooth marks of the cookie-cutter shark and the orca have been seen on individuals as well.

• The stomach, which has unexplained multiple chambers, has been found to contain mainly squid, in addition to deep sea shrimp and viper fish.

• The main threats to Gervais’ beaked whale are accidental entanglement in gillnets and acoustic trauma following military noise pollution underwater. In the mid to late 1980s, several mass strandings were thought to be associated with naval activities around the Canary Islands. Later, between 1992 and 1998, 28 Gervais’ beaked whales were stranded along the US coast between Florida and Massachusetts, followed by more mass strandings in September 2002 after NATO tested low frequency sonar.

• There are no special conservation plans for this species, although trade in this species is limited by CITES around the world and prohibited in Europe.

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