Whale dies days after video shows it being stroked by swimmers near beach

Ecologists raise concerns about whale’s deteriorating health after it beached over weekend

Namita Singh
Tuesday 12 December 2023 08:33
Stranded 30-tonne sperm whale dies after washing up on Australian beach

A huge sperm whale beached on a Rockingham sandbar over the weekend died on Tuesday despite efforts to save it.

The whale was more than 15 metres long and weighed more than 30 tonnes, according to reports.

The videos of the sick and sunburned whale were all over social media and had become a major source of attraction for beachgoers, with several swimmers paddling from the shore to stroke the mammal. The behavior however, drew concern from ecologists.

Marine biologist Dr Natalie Sinclair told the BBC: “The proximity of individuals to the whale poses risk, not only to the animal, but also to the people involved.”

The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) closed the Rockingham Beach in the morning to move out the carcass, reported 9 News.

"At around 4.30am this morning, DBCA wildlife and marine officers observed the whale had moved 300m away from the sand bar towards Garden Island," the agency said in a statement on Facebook.

Fisheries WA, City of Rockingham – Local Government and Perth Zoo staff working in partnership with DBCA to save the whale

"After completing an on-water assessment of the whale, we can confirm that sadly, the whale died at approximately 6.30am.

"We would just like to say thank you to everyone involved in this incident, including the community.

"The next stage of the operation will involve removing the carcass out of the water."

The largest of the toothed whales and the largest toothed predator, sperm whales are rarely spotted near shore. So, the authorities were notified quickly after they saw the whale swimming close to the shore on Monday at the West Australian beach. It was previously spotted on Saturday, swimming near Port Beach.

“They live offshore in deep water, and that’s where they forage and spend their time,” DBCA science coordinator Kelly Waples was quoted as saying by New.com.au. “It’s actually sitting on the sand floor,” he said earlier on Monday.

Soon,  a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions relayed the concerns about the whale’s deteriorating health. 

“It’s not really got that energy that you would expect from a healthy animal, so I’d say it’s resting, and I think at the moment it’s protecting one side of itself from any predators, positioning itself in a way that we might expect in an animal who’s not well and needs to rest,” Mark Cugley, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions informed the local media on Monday.

“Yesterday, it was swimming in those tight circles, which isn’t normal behaviour, which … makes us concerned that not everything is well with the animal,” he said at the time.

“At times, it became grounded on shallow sandbars, and it would swim off again, then it would get grounded again, so it’s concerning, and that’s why we need to fully assess its health.

“It’s got a little bit of sunburn, and it’s a little bit sunken and depressed behind its melon (forehead), which isn’t a great sign of body condition.”

The department will remove the carcass using a crane, he told BBC News.

"We will be looking at certainly doing some post-mortem or necropsy analysis as well to understand anything more we can about the death of the whale and also about this species, given it’s quite unusual to have a sperm whale in this area of Perth," he said.

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