By Jana-Mari Smith
The stranding of a pygmy right whale (Caperea marginata) on the beach at Walvis Bay in mid-February was a rare opportunity to come close to this elusive and diminutive creature.
The pygmy right whale is the world’s smallest whale and as it is so reclusive, it is one of the rarest seen sea mammals in the world. Scientists know very little about this whale.
It is reported that the pygmy right whale is the last living member of an ancient group of whales (The Cetotheriidae family of whales) – because scientists had believed until 2012 that this family of whales had been extinct for millions of years, the pygmy right whale has been described as a “living fossil”.
The whale was sighted at around 11h00 in the morning at the salt works pump station in Walvis Bay.
The whale was lying approximately 200 metres from the edge of the waters.
During the hours they waited for the tide to come in, a team of helpers, affiliated to the Namibian Strandings Network, and Leeney cared for the whale.
At 16h00 later that day the tide had come in sufficiently for the animal to be released.
As she watched the whale orientate itself in the waters and regain control and quickly vanish into her watery home, Leeney says she realized “what a privilege it had been to see such a rare species up close”.
For her it was especially personal, as she had only recently written a paper of all the documented pygmy right whale sightings in Namibian waters.
“It was wonderful to see a live one for the first time”.
It is estimated that as of 2008, fewer than 25 at sea sightings were reported.
Reporting and dealing with sea mammal strandings is a vital component of conservation management on Namibia’s coast.
Leeney said that as a result of people’s keen interest to assist stranded mammals, the Namibian Strandings Network was established in 2008. The network is coordinated by the Namibian Dolphin Project, which carries out research work on whales and dolphins in Namibian waters.
It is due to this network and an effective chain of communication generated that the stranding at the salt works was quickly reported.
Because of general awareness on what to do in case of strandings, the first people on the scene knew that it was vital to contact the Strandings Network and to keep the whale’s skin moist and the well-insulated body cool.
People trudged through the difficult terrain with buckets filled with water which was poured over the animals body at regular intervals.
Soon after its discovery, its body was covered with t-shirts and rags, protecting its fragile skin from the harsh Namibian sun.
Although its difficult to know precisely, Leeney says that it could be that the whale came in on a high tide and became stranded as the tide went out again.
The geography of Walvis Bay can act as “a kind of trap. Animals moving south down the coast and into the bay may suddenly meet a dead end and find themselves blocked off from the Atlantic ocean by the long sand spit of Pelican Point. This was a young whale, so perhaps her navigation skills were not quite honed in”, she speculated.
Naturally, the opportunity to study this rare species up close did not go to waste.
Leeney and her colleagues collected as much data as possible while making sure the disturbance to the animal was kept to a minimum.
They took body measurements, photographs, DNA samples and made observations.
Simon Elwen, co-founder of the Namibian Dolphin project explained that “DNA samples contain a vast amount of potential information and the opportunity to collect them from infrequently seen species like this is rare indeed. We don’t currently have a study in place to use the sample, so we will store it for now, but make it available for possibly other scientists/studies who may be looking at eg. global genetic diversity or if we perhaps develop a study in the future to look at Namibian samples”.
They estimated that the young mammal weighed between 300 and 400 kilograms. She was just over 3 metres in length and as the pygmy right whales grow to just over 6 metres, it was clear she was still a juvenile.
The day ended on a positive note when the high tide finally pooled around the feet of the people and the belly of the whale.
Lifting the heavy creature onto the stretcher took muscle and determination, but eventually the stretcher with its precious cargo was gently submerged into the deep waters and the pygmy right whale swam away.
What to do if you find a LIVE stranded whale or dolphin:
Namibian Stranding Network contact numbers
Interview with Ruth Leeney
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