Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Steven Benjamin's Account of the False Killer Whale strandings

I first met Steven in South Africa - the day we were going out to dive with the Tigers was his first day working with Blue Wilderness - he must be good as he is still there ;). Steven studied marine biology and has a definite love for the ocean and all of its inhabitants. Recently about 50-60 whales beached themselves in South Africa - below is Steven's account of the event:

"This is a brief account of the False Killer Whale mass stranding. I have tried to keep it factual and simply describe three days of events from the beaching to their burial.

On the 30th of May 45-55 false killer whales beached themselves on long beach Kommitjie, a small coastal suburb on the west coast of the cape peninsular. The whales were initially in close proximity in the centre of the beach. By 9am, when we arrived, there were roughly1000 people on the beach; many in wetsuits frantically trying to push the whales back out to sea. I watched many groups celebrate as their whale was push past the shore break only to watch the same whale swim 100m down the beach and come ashore again. The whales seemed determined to come ashore. By this stage the pod had been spread along the length of the 1.5km beach.

There was general confusion on the beach and no leadership. The National Sea Rescue Institute were tending to the injured people (cracked ribs, near drowning and hypothermia) while the Police were trying to control the crowds. No guidance was given regarding the animals.

The only decision that I clearly heard was the command to bring the whales onto the beach. This decision was made by the SPCA, Marine and Coastal management (MCM) and Mammal Research Institute (MRI). People were not happy but the animals were slowly brought ashore. At roughly 2pm the authorities started amassing at one end of the beach. They formed a human wall, to clear bystanders, as a convoy of cars and officials worked behind.

Behind them walked Mike Mayer, Head of MCM, the MRI team as well as various Two Oceans Aquarium staff and Sea Rescue staff.

This was the first clear demonstration of coherence amongst the authorities. They started putting animals down with a single gun shot to the cranium. Death was swift and very few animals needed a second shot. The general public was still present on the beach and witnessed the deaths. The authorities did not want images taken. Bulldozers quickly moved the bodies to the base of the sand dunes and above the high tide line.

The next morning the bodies were loaded onto 6 dump trucks and moved to Vissserhok landfill where the autopsies would take place. At 3pm 41 animals were spread out on top of the highest point of the landfill site. One animal had its left rib cage removed which must have been cut out during the night. The team consisting of MCM and MRI staff worked to collect stomachs, reproductive organs, skin and blubber samples, jaws and tissue samples. This information would be critical to furthering our knowledge on the species and to perhaps try understanding why they beached them selves. Autopsies continued till 4:30 on the 1 of June.

The pod consisted of calves, males and females. At least 6 of the females were pregnant, with foetuses in various stages of development. Most of the animals did have food in their stomachs. One large individual had a severely disfigured lower jaw with goose neck barnacles growing off the teeth and bone. This appeared to be a very old wound but had not killed the animal which appeared in good health and had food in its stomach.

There were some requests for animals parts for traditional healing but the Visserhok authorities were very strict and nothing, but our samples, were removed.

The final resting place of the animals was deep inside the landfill." - Steve Benjamin

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