Mini-whale ships out

A rare species of miniature sperm whale that was found dead on the Spotts Bay shore Tuesday has apparently floated back out to sea.

Pygmy sperm whale

Department of Environment enforcement officer Mark Orr attempts to bring the pygmy sperm whale ashore Tuesday. Photo: Brent Fuller

At least that’s the theory of Department of Environment officers.

‘We got a call from the people in that house (located on the shore where the whale was found Tuesday morning),’ said DoE Research Officer Janice Blumenthal. ‘It seems like the tide took it back out.’

Ms Blumenthal said environmental officers took plenty of photos of the creature, as well as a few of its teeth and DNA samples. She said those will be given to research experts from the UK’s Save Our Seas Foundation who will arrive in Cayman this weekend.

The DoE said it was able to confirm the marine mammal found Tuesday was a pygmy sperm whale, a creature that is rarely spotted swimming in the sea. Most of what is known of this particular type of whale is from beached specimens like that one found this week.

The slope of the embankment leading down to the small strip of beach outside the home of Eldon and Patricia Kirkconnell in the Spotts area was too steep for any vehicles to traverse. Department of Environment crews were unable to remove the animal from the water or haul it up the hill far enough to place it on a truck for transport.

Ms. Blumenthal said officials with St. Matthew’s School of Veterinary Medicine were informed about the find, but the whale’s body had vanished before they were able to respond. St. Matthew’s has the facilities to perform necropsy (animal autopsy) services and has previously performed tests on beached whales and other marine life in Cayman.

Tuesday’s find was rare, but it is hardly the first incident where a whale has washed up on the shores of one of Cayman’s three islands.

In February 2008, a 14-foot pilot whale was found on the beach by Spanish Bay Reef in West Bay. It was believed the animal had severely injured itself trying to swim over the barrier reef in the North Sound.

In June of this year what was believed to be a young sperm whale got stuck on a reef near the Little Cayman Beach Resort. Its wounds were also believed to have been caused by contact with the reef.

Ms. Blumenthal said the Save Our Seas Foundation would be conducting a comprehensive study of marine mammals, sharks and other marine life during the organisation’s visit.

A total of four scientists will be arriving in Cayman this weekend to work with the Department of Environment in carrying out surveys of Cayman’s sharks, whales and dolphin populations.

The team includes Dr. Mauvis Gore from Marine Conservation International, Dr. Rupert Ormond, chief scientist of the Save Our Seas Foundation, and Edd Brooks, a shark researcher based at Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas.

The team will be assisting the DoE with surveys around all three islands and will also build on the efforts to establish a public sightings scheme for recording observations of sharks, whales and dolphins seen in Caymanian waters.

The team will be collaborating with local marine scientists.

‘We’re really excited to be working with this group of experts on these important issues,’ DoE Deputy Director Tim Austin said. ‘Sharks, as top-level predators in our marine environment, are key components and we have very little reliable data or information on local species, populations and the pressures they face.

‘Additionally through this project we hope to expand on local efforts to better understand what species of whales and dolphins use Caymans’ waters as part of their home ranges.’

The project is being jointly funded by the UK Overseas Territory Environment Programme, the Save Our Seas Foundation and Cayman’s Department of the Environment.