On Saturday 2 June, we learnt of a Sperm Whale stranding in West Papua. Today, Tuesday 5 June, he’s deceased and has been identified as a female. A 5cm wound is visible on the carcass but no further information.
About 16m long, she was in about 2.5m of water, wedged on a sand bank in Numbrai Bay near Siboru village. The precise location isn’t known but the closest channel to Siboru village on Google Maps is here.
The bathymetry shows a drop off to about 1,500m roughly 15km south but it also looks like there are a number of deep ocean canyons running closer to shore: that would be the nearest habitat.
According to local reports, this is the third such recent stranding. While strandings can be down to natural causes, two recent high-profile cases involving animals with significant amounts of marine-plastic in their stomachs (Short-finned Pilot Whale, Thailand, end May 2018 and 13 Sperm Whales in the UK North Sea, March 2016) raises the possibility that this could be a factor. We simply don’t know and we’re not sure it will be possible to investigate in this situation.
Since the stranding occurred, the Loka Team of Coastal and Marine Resource Management (PSPL) of Sorong and Head of Fishery Department of Fakfak Untung Tamsil Regency attended. Efforts to ‘rescue’ the animal were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, in such incredibly remote locations, it’s very difficult to get advice to people in time. Local authorities apparently did their best to keep locals away but curiosity got the better of many villagers.
Throughout, the team from Whale Strandings Indonesia and their vet team were providing advice, as was Heike Vester from Ocean Sounds but there was little that could be done.
These are always stressful situations but we’re reminded that the prognosis for large cetaceans like this are often poor, euthanasia is impossible to do humanely and often the best thing to do, distant and allow nature to take its course. However, these decisions are usually made with veterinary advice – it’s very hard to read a situation from this distance.
Perhaps one thing we learn is that we could do more to raise local peoples’ understanding of these unique animals. While it’s a very sad situation, perhaps some good can come from these experiences in the long-term.
Simon Mustoe for Ocean Sounds.
Thank you to Pak Jemmy, Ismu Hidayat, Dr Ricardo Tapilatu and Danielle Kreb for images and updates throughout.
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