PETER FROST reports on the spate of whale strandings on England’s east coast beaches.
SEVENTEEN sperm whales have been stranded on beaches around the North Sea in the last few weeks — five of them on Norfolk and Lincolnshire beaches and the rest in the Netherlands and Germany.
The corpse of a 50ft young adult male sperm whale came ashore at Hunstanton in Norfolk during the night of Friday January 22.
Local rescuers tried to try to save the Hunstanton whale. Coastguards, volunteer divers and the local lifeboat crew, along with staff from the Hunstanton Sea Life Sanctuary, all failed to push the whale — injured from thrashing in the shallows — back into deeper water.
Hunstanton lifeboat spokesman Geoff Needham told us: “It was a sad end for such a magnificent creature. This large animal was unable to make for deeper water. As the tide was dropping away, nothing more could be done.”
The sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) used to be called the cachalot. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a cachalot.
It is the largest of the toothed whales and the largest toothed predator on the globe. It has the largest brain of any animal on Earth, more than five times heavier than a human’s. Sperm whales can live for more than 60 years.
Mature males average 52ft in length but some may reach 67ft, with the head representing up to one-third of the animal’s length.
The sperm whale feeds primarily on squid. It can dive up to 7,382ft for prey and is the second deepest-diving mammal. Only Cuvier’s beaked whale dives deeper.
Females give birth every four to 20 years and care for the calves for more than a decade.
A mature sperm whale has few natural predators. It has a distinctive clicking voice used for both echolocation and communication.
The Hunstanton whale was one of a pod of at least six sperm whales which had been observed alive but distressed in shallow waters in the Wash on Friday.
Later three more sperm whales from the pod were found washed up on beaches at Skegness. Thousands of spectators flocked to the beaches to view the whales before the area was closed to the public.
Two of the massive 50ft whales were found on a Skegness beach towards Gibraltar Point at around 8.30pm on Saturday and the third was discovered on Sunday morning at the end of Lagoon Walk.
Richard Johnson of UK Coastguard told us: “We believe that the three whales at Skegness died at sea and then washed ashore.”
On Monday a fifth dead whale was found at Wainfleet, Lincolnshire, on the site of a former bombing range with no public access.
The dead whales are believed to have been part of a group spotted in the Wash on Friday and these are believed to be part of a pod of which 17 have been stranded and died in the Netherlands and Germany earlier this month.
These wandering pods are often made up mainly of adolescent males. They normally feed in the deep waters between Norway and Scotland.
Five whales died after they washed ashore on Texel Island, one of the Frisian islands of the north Netherland coast two weeks ago. Six more have stranded in Germany in recent weeks.
Sperm whales are deep sea animals and do not belong in the shallow waters of the North Sea. Various theories have been put forward as to why the magnificent mammals were stranded. Were they misled by underwater signals from submarines and military shipping? Or is it another strange result of the changes in the huge ocean currents brought about by climate change?
It is believed that large numbers of squid, the main food of the sperm whales, have been moving through into the North Sea and the whales may have been following them.
Dr Peter Evans, director of the Sea Watch Foundation, said the whales probably swam south through the North Sea looking for food but became disorientated in shallow waters.
“Whales feed on squid and what’s probably happened is that squid came in and the whales fed upon them but ran out of food,” he said.
Examination of the stomachs of the stranded whales showed they had not eaten recently. As whales do not drink but get their fluid intake from food, starvation can quickly lead to dehydration and disorientation.
Scientists have removed the Hunstanton whale’s lower jaw bone and teeth, and taken samples of blood and blubber from its carcass for analysis. This will enable them to establish the age of the whale and its physical condition before its death.
Examining dead whales can be an exciting, if not dangerous, procedure. The huge corpses deteriorate quickly and gases and noxious fluids build up under pressure in the body sealed with thick blubber. They often explode and those explosions are often caused by autopsy chainsaw incisions. This happened with one of the Skegness whales.
From the early 18th century through the late 20th, the sperm whale was heavily hunted by whalers. The head of the whale contains a liquid wax called spermaceti, from which the whale derives its name.
Spermaceti was used in lubricants, oil lamps and candles. Ambergris, a waste product from the sperm whale’s digestive system, is still used as a fixative in perfumes such as Chanel No 5. Regurgitated lumps of ambergris are sometimes found on British beaches and are extremely valuable.
This lump of suspected ambergris was found on Morecambe Beach. After being valued at £100,000 it was finally declared worthless.
Today the species is protected by a whaling moratorium, and is currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
The total population of sperm whales in the world is thought to be in the hundreds of thousands. Japan still hunts the species and has killed more than 50 sperm whales since 2000.
Currently, entanglement in fishing nets and collisions with ships represent the greatest threats to the sperm whale population. Other threats include ingestion of marine debris, ocean noise and chemical pollution and, as we have seen this weekend, stranding in unfamiliar shallow waters.
Every year 600 strandings of cetaceans — whales, dolphins and porpoises — occur in the UK, mostly in the north of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland. Only about five or six a year are sperm whales. On Christmas Eve 2011, a sperm whale washed-up at Old Hunstanton Beach. Thousands flocked to see it, just as they have with the recent strandings.
This article was first published in the Morning Star 29 January 2016.