Rarely seen pygmy whale washes ashore

A baby whale – preliminarily identified as a pygmy sperm whale – washed up on a beach in South Sound Thursday night.

Staff at St. Matthews University performed a necropsy on the carcass over the weekend and were working to determine the cause of death, said Dr. Veronica Boling, an anatomic veterinary pathologist and assistant professor of veterinary pathology.

“The whale was a male, and suspected to be a juvenile. A cause of death remains undetermined. Samples were collected for additional testing to rule out infectious and non-infectious causes of death. To assist our local and international researchers in their ongoing marine mammal studies, tissue samples for genetic analysis and morphometric data was also collected,” Dr. Boling said.

Mark Orr, chief conservation officer at the Department of Environment, said his team had removed the whale from the shallows at first light on Friday.

He said the animal was around five feet long and took three staffers to lift onto the truck. Adult pygmy sperm whales grow to around 11 feet.

There were no signs of external injuries or the whale having been bitten or hit by a boat propeller, he said.

Conservation Officer Janice Blumenthal said, “One of the aims of our stranding response is to determine cause of death so that we can better understand threats to marine mammals.”

The examination will also seek to confirm the species identification.

“From a preliminary examination of photographs, the whale appears to be pygmy or a dwarf sperm whale,” she said.

“These are extremely similar species so identification will be confirmed through a physical examination and collection of a genetic sample.”

There have been two previous documented strandings of pygmy sperm whales on beaches in the Cayman Islands, in 2009 and 2013.

The species, a type of toothed whale that inhabits the open ocean, travel in small groups and are believed to dive to depths as great as 1,000 feet. They are rarely seen at sea and much of what is known about them comes from examinations of carcasses that wash up on beaches.

Whale sightings are relatively rare, but not unheard of, in the Cayman Islands.

The Department of Environment asks people to report any marine mammal sightings by email to [email protected] or on the Facebook page Sharks & Cetaceans: The Cayman Islands.

Ms. Blumenthal added, “Through collection of reports from the public, the DoE marine animal sighting program provides information on abundance and distribution of whales, sharks, manta rays, adult turtles and other large marine animals around the Cayman Islands. This information is used to determine migratory patterns and assess the importance of our waters for these rare species.”