27 November 2017

Namibia: Rare Whale Stranding At Swakop

Marine researchers in Namibia and internationally are hoping to preserve the first complete Bryde's whale skeleton in the world after the carcass of one of these rare mammals washed ashore just north of Mile 4 at Swakopmund last week.

The principal investigator of the Namibian Dolphin Project, Simon Elwen, said the female whale measured about 15 metres, with an estimated weight of 15 tonnes.

The age is difficult to tell but according to Elwen, sexual maturity of this type is normally at 8 to 9 years, which suggests this one was an adult female. At birth, they range from three to four metres in length.

"The animal was unfortunately not laying in the right position to allow us to get a more accurate measurement. We are hoping the ocean will help move it a little over the next few days," he added.

Based on its larger size and a high number of 'cookie-cutter' shark bite scars, he said this whale is likely from the deep-sea population.

Despite being extensively caught in the commercial whaling off South Africa and Namibia in the early 20th century, he said not a single skeleton of this species exist, making official recognition of this species "challenging".

The Namibian Dolphin Project will try to keep the entire skeleton, and work with a group of international scientists to help describe this species properly.

"Why did it die? Very hard to say, as always. But there is a large injury in the middle of the body which suggests 'ship strike', which is quite rare in Namibia. If the further assessment reveals broken ribs or skull, then this will confirm it," said Elwen.

The Namibian understands that the Swakopmund municipality intends to bury the carcass in a deep trench, and that this would also be the best way to preserve a skeleton.

Stranded whales and dolphins provide scientists with a lot of insight into populations or species that are not easily available from other research methods.

Elwen said two populations, possibly species (depending on the outcome of new research) of Bryde's whales occur off southern Africa, and both were described from whaling records and specimens collected in South Africa.

He said the 'inshore population' lives on the continental shelf around South Africa, although at least two strandings have occurred in Namibia, suggesting the range might be bigger than previously thought.

"The 'offshore form' lives far out to sea, and ranges from Namibia up to tropical West Africa. Very few confirmed sightings of either population exist in Namibia, but both have been recorded from strandings, highlighting the importance of these records," said Elwen.

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