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Monday, 3 October 2016

Outside the whale

A visitor from the deep washed up at Red Rock Beach near Dawlish at about 6am on Thursday, not a customary thing to see from the train window.

UK Strandings Investigation Team took samples and confirmed identity as a Fin whale Balaenoptera physalus, the second largest in the world. This is a pelagic, temperate and cool water ocean species, long and slender, built for speed, with two sub-species, one each in the northern and southern hemisphere. The global population is estimated at around 100,000 - 120,000, recovering from 38,000 in 1997*, perhaps less than 10% of its pre-whaling level.  

Fin: final resting place on Dawlish beach

This was the third Fin whale washed up in the UK in 2016; typically 2-3 such incidents occur annually out of around 600 stranding reports each year**. Another Fin whale was stranded two weeks ago on Shetland

At 16-17m, this one was as big as a lorry, but still not fully grown (largest can reach 26m) and was thought to be a sub-adult, weaned and maybe relatively recently independent, about 3-4 years old. Turned slightly on its back, the fin was not visible though the black and white baleen plates, and a white patch on the right side of the lower jaw, are distinctive feature of the species***. 

This month's BBC Wildlife magazine says that from July onwards fin whales regularly turn up along Cork and Waterford coasts in south east Ireland, sometimes also seen around Scotland and the south west of England, peaking in October - November as the whales venture closer to shore in pursuit of shoals of sprat and herring.

A fin whale had been observed in the English Channel over the last few months, which may have been this same, now deceased, individual. Coastguards had been tracking the carcass for the last few days, in case it may have been an upturned boat. It is thought to have died about 2 weeks ago, and been drifting on tides since.

The baleen plate of brushes - instead of teeth - meant this clearly wasn't a sperm whale, one of the toothed whales, as in some early reports. The baleen is what filters out the zooplankton and small fish from the huge mouthfuls of water the whale takes as it feeds, filling up the expanding mouth pouch and forcing the water out through the brushes, trapping the food inside.

Interestingly there seemed to be a couple of bite marks in the jaw blubber. Apart from a puncture wound in the side, which may have
occurred after death, there were no signs of obvious injury, such as from a collision. The results of the sample analysis may provide more information in due course.

Although still fairly intact on the outside, the carcass was too decomposed internally, hastened beneath the thick cushion of insulating blubber, for a post-mortem. Any approach from downwind, from as far away as Dawlish Warren, suggested as much.  

The leaking from the wound congealed with the sand, which stuck well to footwear, so that a reminder of this encounter was carried around for some hours afterwards.

Teignbridge council are responsible for Dawlish beach, and now also the large and unusual clean up operation of what could swiftly become a health hazard.

Whale meat again: advised to clean footwear thoroughly if don't want them to remind you of dead whale for the next couple of days

Over the weekend the carcass is likely to be rendered and removed piece by piece. Next time from the train window there won't be a trace, except for the lingering memories prompted by faintly smelly shoes.

* from figures on Wikipedia for Fin whales taken in the Southern hempisphere between 1905-76
** Rob Deauville of UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme, quoted in Daily Mail online
*** David MacDonald & Priscilla Barrett 1993 Collins Field Guide Mammals of Britain and Europe 

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