by Melanie Baumeister
On Friday 29 June a wounded juvenile Humpback whale beached itself on the shores of Sedgefield between Swartvlei and The river-mouth, causing a heartfelt stir amongst our local, nature-loving community.
Almost immediately on site was scientific guide and marine biologist, Mark Dixon, who was able to confirm the extent of the whale’s injuries and, as it turned out, record the sad farewell of this immense mammal. According to the very moving footage posted on You-Tube the same day by Mark, the young creature sang its last song just before 14h00.
On Saturday 30 June, Cape Nature and SANParks conducted biometric measurements and biopsy sampling – skin, blubber and muscle samples were taken from the back, tail and wound area. Baleen (the whale’s mouth) samples were taken from the upper jaw and various length measurements were made with an overall length of 8.83m being recorded. The wounds, though not confirmed by forensic examination, did indicate possible Orca Whale or shark attack.
There have been numerous public enquiries as to why the animal was not dissected to check for stomach contents – and while there is a pressing need to check if plastic ingestion contributed to the death of the whale, there are some good reasons as to why this would not be viable: Permissions from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), the South African authority which has jurisdiction over marine animals, are notoriously hard to acquire – it is almost impossible to get as an individual and it would be up to an organisation to submit a permit request.
Since the beaching occurred on a Friday the weekend became a bureaucratic obstacle too. As for experienced personnel to perform the operation – one was overseas at an international conference and the other unavailable. Even with red tape aside, the position and size of the creature would have made such a dissection logistically challenging and very expensive to even attempt.
As a result, it was decided to bury the whale where she lay, on Friday 6 July. In a combined exercise by SANParks and Knysna Municipality, a pit was excavated and the carcass laid to rest. Two earth moving machines were used, a front-end loader and a TLB compacting the sand at the base after the pit was dug. Then, in a series of manoeuvres, the carcass was rolled into the hole and covered up. Proceedings started at 10h00 and finished at 12h15.
It was noted before the whale was buried that part of the tail and a fin had been clandestinely removed from the carcass. While it is unsure whether this was for traditional medicine, illegal wildlife trade or simply as a souvenir, whoever did it came well prepared and knew what they were doing. Cuts on the tail and around the pectoral region indicated they knew where to cut between the joints to avoid sawing through bone, suggesting that this isn’t the work of a souvenir collector.
Sadness aside, from an educational point of view the presence of the whale carcass has been an ideal learning experience, with some schools arranging trips to see the huge mammal. Even during the burial, two groups arrived to learn about whales in particular and the dangers of plastics to our environment. In the passing of this magnificent young creature, Sedgefielders have had the opportunity to observe a marine event right up close and personal.
The Edge would like to extend our thanks to Mark Dixon of Garden Route Trails for providing us with all the necessary information, and for his communications with all the parties involved so that the community could be kept abreast of events as they happened.