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Tristan whale strandings, and a daring rescue

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Witnesses on Tristan da Cunha have described a unique sighting of two rare shepherd’s beaked whales beaching themselves on the shore near Calshott Harbour. The island website also describes a successful attempt to cut loose a fishing buoy from an eight-metre long humpback whale.

The strandings took place on 13 January 2012, but details have only just been posted at Administrator Sean Burns and the conservation officer, Conrad Glass, were among those who watched the only beaching of shepherd’s beaked whales ever to be witnessed on Tristan.

The account tells how the larger female was seen bleeding heavily on the reef west of the harbour, but freed itself and swam clear. It then turned and ‘seemed to head at full speed straight for the reef.

‘The impact of hitting the rocks snapped its beak in a profusion of blood. Not long after the whale appeared to have died.’

The smaller male also appeared to be frantically trying to beach itself, eventually succeeding. It died on the rocks, with onlookers unable to reach it to attempt a rescue.

An expert on cetaceans in South Africa later confirmed that the wales were the rare Tasmacetus shepherdi, and that the spectacle of their deaths was a ‘very important and exciting event’. There have been only six recorded strandings on Tristan, in 1983, 1984, 1987 and 1995 – and none of them were witnessed.

The Whale News page of the Tristan website also has a graphic account of an ‘amazing’ operation to cut a fishing line in which a large humpback whale had become tangled. A buoy was attached, which apparently made the line pull tight whenever the whale submerged.

Every time the rescuers attempted to get close to the giant creature, it would dive to avoid them – but eventually they managed to get alongside long enough to cut through the line.

‘The strange thing,’ said Connie Glass, one of the rescuers, ‘is the whale seemed to sense that we were helping it, for the creature remained hardly moving. As Neil let go of the last bit of line, the whale dived deeply, swimming out to sea.’

Read both accounts here.


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