The rare appearance of a deep-diving sperm whale first spotted at the end of March has drawn concern since the whale began hanging out in the shallows of Oban Bay, Scotland. But spring tides may cut it a break says a rescue group observing the whale.
Stephen Marsh, the Operations Manager for the registered charity British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), told Digital Journal that the whale which was first spotted in Oban Bay March 30, may have a better shot at reaching the open ocean with the arrival of spring tides towards the end of next week.
Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales on the planet and spend 90 percent of their time down deep, yet despite public fears over the whale's welfare, Marsh said that the cetacean seems to be in surprisingly good shape given that the maximum depth in the bay is only about 40 meters.
Despite recent claims that the whale was weakening, Marsh said, "it is breathing at a regular rate, a nice relaxed rate as well and it's not showing any signs of stress until boats get close to it." Furthermore he added:
The reports that it's weakening are not from people who understand whales. We do have a problem here that a lot of people don't see sperm whales close up and obviously a sperm whale is a very crinkly, wrinkly, bumpy-looking thing with vertebrae showing on the tail stock and that worries people who don't know what a sperm whale is.
Marsh said that people are, "expecting to see something like a dolphin," but the part of the whale that does show he added, is "quite different to a nice rounded dolphin." To address concerns and reports over weight loss, the Operations Manager said this was not something people can visibly observe.
"It's like a 20-stone person losing enough weight in six days to be able to see a visible change," he said, "you're not going to see it."
Professional photographs taken recently Marsh said, show that although the whale has "a pronounced skull hump," it is "not in bad shape."
But how the whale ended up there, is still anyone's guess. What is somewhat known is that its length -- around "11.9 meters" Marsh said, indicates that it could be somewhere between 11 and 14-years-old.
It is also possible that the whale is one of five sperm whales reported in the area during the last couple of months. Marsh said he is hoping to confirm or refute that, with existing photographic evidence gathered in a sperm whale catalog.
But there there may be a chance that the sub-adult whale is a young lone ranger too.
"It may just have come away from its mother or from the female group (females and calves), or just drifted in," Marsh said. "The weather has been pretty bad, so any animal that does have a bit of a problem might seek shelter and we do get that a lot on the west coast where animals come in and shelter." Calves usually stay with the females in warmer areas until between the ages of four and 20 years he told us.
While it may never be known how the whale ended up in Oban Bay, the cetacean has one more story to tell. It bears markings of having had either a rope or a chain around its skull bump. "They look as if they're healed lesions," Marsh said, "so at some stage it may well have been roped or it may have been coming in of its own accord to actually have a rest ... they do look pretty well healed so it happened quite a while ago," he added.
Intervention needs cautious approach
Although concerns have been expressed that the longer the whale remains in the bay the less chance it will have at long-term survival, Marsh indicated that a cautious response to any intervention was needed, given the environment currently surrounding the whale.
The last thing the rescue organization said it wants to see happen, is to have the animal beach or strand. To drive the whale out may cause it to do just that, the group said.
"With sperm whales," Marsh added, "we've got an animal there that is weighing 15, 20, 30 tons so we can't refloat it and that's why we don't want it to beach at all. As long as it's in the water, it's manageable," he added, but "as soon as it beaches, we cannot do anything. We can give it first aid, but it's likely that in the turn of the tide, you know 12 hours later when the water reaches it again, it probably would be on its way out."
The Operations Manager said that sperm whales and beaked whales who are deep divers, have a massive muscle pack on them where they store oxygen and myoglobin.
"When they're stranded," he explained, "the muscle starts to break down really, really quickly and we didn't know that until we started getting a whole host of northern bottlenose strandings a few years ago and all of the post mortems showed that all of them had died of the same thing."
Marsh said once the muscle starts to break down, it releases, "myoglobin into the bloodstream rather than the oxygen itself." This "races around the body," he added, and "blocks the kidney. They get kidney failure and then that's it, and there is nothing you can do."
It is for this reason that in 2009, a coalition of marine mammal conservation groups advised that it was better for beaked whales and sperm whales to be humanely euthanized once they stranded. It was a decision that drew ire from whale lovers and animal advocates alike, when it was first announced in 2009. And it wasn't helped by the title of the article printed in the Guardian newspaper, which was apparently written in error.
"It should be beaked whales put down not beached whales," Marsh told me, "species like Northern bottlenose, and the sperm whales." It was a decision that was made after scientists said that myogloblin release, known to cause dehydration, irreparable muscle and kidney damage in beaked whales, meant that even if the mammals were refloated, they would still die at sea several days later.
Still, it remains a controversial one.
"We've had people say, 'yes, but you can reverse it in humans'," Marsh said, "but if you look at a whale's kidney, it's one thousandth the size of ours and it's a massive process machine. So when that goes you get major organ failure very quickly."
So the policy that was made -- not just by ourselves but also the marine animal coalition that involves all of the rescue charities and scientific people as well -- including Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), all agreed that it would be more humane for beaked whales and sperm whales if possible, to be put down if we couldn't get them into some sort of suspension in the water.
Although the policy isn't an automatic death sentence, the Operations Manager admitted that timing and size of the animal all played a role in a successful refloat. If the marine mammal was a big whale such as the northern bottlenose he said, "if we can't get it back into the water into full suspension in two hours, then it is likely that the most humane thing to do would be to euthanise it."
Marsh continued, "you have to bear in mind we're talking about the turn of a tide so we've got to have enough water coming in to lift our pontoons that we put the animal on to float it." It is unlikely he added, that while "waiting for the turn of the tide, it's going to happen within two hours."
Outside of the two-hour window he said, they would be "putting out an animal that will die a slow and lingering death over the next week or so." Post mortems -- "certainly on northern bottlenose," Marsh added, have shown that the animal "will not recover."
Avoiding beaching the whale at all costs
Not beaching the animal remains one of the top concerns for BDMLR. If the sperm whale does strand itself then not even euthanasia can help it. "We wouldn't have the right drugs, in the quantities needed," Marsh told us. This means "you would have to stand back and basically let it die naturally and it can take a long time," he said.
In hopes of avoiding this he said, the timing has to be perfect to attempt a rescue.
Given that the whale doesn't seem to be exhibiting any kind of stress so far, "non intervention is the best thing at the moment," said Marsh. "The big risk obviously if we go in and we try to move it -- it gets spooked, and the lie of the land underwater -- the symmetry, is a little bit confusing there." Should they attempt a rescue the Operations Manager said, then they would prefer to lure the whale out with accoustics rather than drive the whale out.
So far, with the use of a hydrophone, the rescue organization knows that the sperm whale is echolating at the surface. "There is a narrow channel that goes through," Marsh said. "It's 40 meters deep at high tide so there are some shoals and rock outcrops that probably the whale is going up to and its echolocation is hitting it, and it's just turning around and coming back," he added.
It is hoped that the whale may get a better shot at the open ocean with spring tides next week when Marsh says the water maybe high enough for the whale's echolocation not to hit the rocks.
"It may be able to go through of its own accord," Marsh says, "but what we don't want to do at the moment is stress it in anyway at all while it's exhibiting what we would imagine is relatively natural activity for an animal that isn't where it should be."
"It's not thrashing about," he said, "it's not breaching, it's not showing any signs of being concerned at all," he said, except "when boats get too close."
BDMLR said it is monitoring the whale closely but if they do try and move it on there would be a narrow window of opportunity for success.
"We'd want to do it right at the end of a rising tide," Marsh ventured, "so that if it did beach, there would still be water coming in to lift it up very quickly. We wouldn't want to do it on a falling tide at all because that's just too risky, you've got water disappearing all around you."
Still, he said, "we're not at that stage because we've got an animal that is in a much better condition being in the water." Marsh also noted that the whale may even be feeding after learning that the area if full of skate. Although a short 10-minute listening session with a hydrophone revealed no evidence of foraging clicks, a longer session could reveal more he said.
Working alongside other experts
BDMLR may be the lead rescue group in this instance, Marsh said, but "we're not doing it in isolation. We're talking to animal behaviorists, cetologists, ecologists, biologists, all the people that can advise on specific areas," he explained.
The organization among others, is working and consulting with the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA), the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), Humane Society International, WDC, and the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews.
They also continue to consult with practicing vets, a marine mammal scientist and pathologists. Feedback on autopsies conducted on stranded marine mammals, enhances their knowledge BDLMR says, and allows them to operate on what's best for stranded marine mammals and how to rescue them effectively.
As for the sperm whale in Oban Bay, Marsh said:
We hope that this will go okay but we do want people to understand that although we may not be seen to be doing anything we're doing what's best for the animal at that time. You can't go rushing in on something like this, you have to take stock.
The Operations Manager added, "one problem here is you're sort of damned if you do and damned if you don't. But we are not going to jump on top of an animal that's in the water and pull it out ... because it's better off in the water."
For now, the whale seems to be doing okay Marsh said, as it will get nutrients and some fluids from the breakdown of its blubber. "This animal seems to have a pretty good blubber layer from what we can gather," he explained. "It's not at the stage where it's breaking down muscle and this is an animal that is now diving for an hour at a time, so that to me doesn't say that this animal is weakening."
"If it has the strength and the ability to actually stay under the water for that long" he added, "it's obviously able to breathe, it's getting oxygen into its system."
BDMLR celebrates its 26th anniversary this year. The charity is involved in about 450-500 instant rescues a year. Although primarily seal rescues, about 10% of these are cetacean incidents that have involved minke whales, pilot whales, dolphins and other species.