Death of a Sperm Whale

Posted by Sahastrarashmi

On Tuesday, August 4, 2010, morning walkers on Goubert Avenue, Pondicherry, were greeted by a creature larger than most of them would ever have seen, tossing in the waves near the shore. It was a 37-feet-long Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and it was quite dead.

The visitor was large and quite dead
Whether the whale had beached or had floated to the coast after an unfortunate mid-sea collision with a ship was not very clear, though posthumous stranding is quite likely, given the fact that this was along the fortified avenue and there is not much of a beach left (it has been reclaimed by post-tsunami fortifications) for it to get stranded. Moreover, beaching quite often occurs when the entire pod or a few members (which constitutes members with very strong and long lasting bonds, quite often groups of females with the young) runs aground.

The news spread quickly. Police, people and camera crews arrived and the scene became a spectacle (and since this is India, with special viewing privileges for VIPs). Later in the afternoon the whale was towed away to the old harbor for an autopsy. Results are awaited.
The male sperm whale can grow up to 50-60 feet (17-20 m) and the female can reach 33-40 feet (11-13 m). It is the deepest diving whale (average dives can last for an hour and are 4,000 feet or 1,200 m deep) and has the largest brain amongst any animal terrestrial or aquatic.
Whale beachings are not uncommon and sometimes the numbers involved are pretty huge. Also, it is mostly toothed whales that beach (as opposed to the baleen whales). In late January 2009, nearly 50 sperm whales beached in Tasmania. Only one survived. The previous November more than 150 long-finned pilot whales beached and died in Tasmania, making Ocean Beach, Tasmania a sort of a beaching hotspot (another hotspot is Geographe Bay, Western Australia). The August 4, 2010, Chennai edition of The Times of India reported the Pondicherry incident along with an interesting static. Quoting an officeholder of the NGO, TREE (Trust for Environment, Education Conservation and Community Development, it said that TREE “has recorded 14 incidents of protected marine-creatures – dolphins, sperm whales, whale shark and porpoise – being washed ashore in the past 9 months.”

The paper also reports that in Jan 2010 another sperm whale died, despite the best efforts of fishermen to rescue it, after being entangled in the fishing nets off the coast near Paramenkeni, 20 km from Marakkanam (near Pondicherry).

Hauling it to the shore was no easy feat
Whale beaching is still not properly understood. Anton Van Helden, Collection Manager for Marine Mammals at the Museum of New Zealand, felt that specific strandings may have individual causes but in general mass strandings are closely associated with the social nature of these mammals.

In an interview he said: “Because of their strong social bond they will respond to an animal in distress in a particular way, and I imagine that if these animals are out at sea and one animal calls for help or gets in trouble in some way, that it calls for other animals to come and assist it, which is a perfectly fine survival strategy out in the open ocean, but when you get into an inshore environment, particularly the sort of whale trap type environments with these shallow grade beaches and so-forth, that it’s a survival strategy which just really doesn’t work for the environment that they find themselves in.”
Other causes include “animals struggling to give birth, old animals dying of various natural causes, parasitic infections, animals hit by boats, all sorts of things. So any one thing could trigger that rescue response, if you like, or that survival strategy gone wrong.”

The authorities have plans to put up the skeleton of the Pondicherry whale as a museum display, which will let a lot of kids see the Moby Dick (Melville’s adventures on the whaleship Essex concerned a sperm whale) that a lot of them would have read about or imagined.

We hope they can grow up to see the real ones in the sea off the coast they live.

The whale in the harbour

For more information on whale beaching see the Wikipedia article Beached whale .

You can watch a video of the Pondicherry whale here

Text and photos by Sahastrarashmi
Photograph of Sperm Whale in harbour by S. Danasegar


  • SR

    Traveller, photographer, philosopher, art connoisseur, trekking guru, and master trip planner, Sahastrarashmi (SR or Sahastra to his friends) is on a relentless quest for the story of life. An engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, he works in Chennai, India and lives (on weekends) in the former French enclave of Pondicherry (Puducherry to the officious). He is on a mission to introduce the uninitiated to the glory of the Himalaya.

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