According to the Southern Metropolis Daily, a dwarf sperm whale (Kogia simus) was stranded at a beach in Daya Bay on the 23rd of May. The report stated that over a dozen people joined in the rescue effort, using their hands to spread seawater over the cetacean to help moisten its skin before pushing the animal to deeper water. The animal eventually swam away on its own.
Staff at the Daya Bay Fisheries Provincial Nature Reserve Management Office said that dwarf sperm whales are “very rare” in the waters around Daya Bay. The species is known to generally live in deeper water near the continental shelf. The animal was noted to have red blotches and scars indicating disease or parasites.
In May of this year CNOOC reported a mid-sized oil field discovery, the Liuhua 20-2 field, in the Eastern South China Sea. Liuhua 20-2 is located in the Pearl River Mouth basin of the South China Sea, at an average water depth of about 390 m. The discovery well (LH20-2-1) was drilled to a depth of about 2,970 m.
This is only the latest South China Sea oil and gas field to be opened. In the last decade a large number of fields have been discovered, explored and commercially exploited. Hong Kong in fact receives some of its gas via a direct pipeline from a gas field southeast of Hainan Island.
Oil and gas prospecting, however, relies on seismic surveys. This involves sending powerful sound or shock waves through the water to the seabed to measure and analyse the echo received back. For the echo to give valuable data on lower rock layers they must be powerful enough to penetrate through thick sediment and into the rocks below. There are a few ways that can be done some including TNT or electricity to create imploding plasma bubbles. But the result is always a loud sound or explosion.
In the last few years Hong Kong has seen a number of more unusual whale strandings including deep-water species like sperm whales, Pygmy sperm whales and short-finned pilot whales, as well as other whales normally rarely if ever seen in Hong Kong such as Omura’s whales. Toothed whales rely heavily on echolocation (seeing by sound) for navigation, so the idea arises whether increased seismic survey activity in the South China Sea is part of the cause for these strandings.
Unfortunately, I am not aware of any scientific investigations into the effects of seismic surveys on whales and dolphins in the South China Sea. Research in this area is very difficult because it is hard to track whales and dolphins in the first place, and because their navigation sense is poorly understood. There are also multiple possible reasons for strandings, including disease and injuries so making a causal link between seismic surveys and whale strandings is very difficult even in the best of circumstances. However, intuitively, it seems right to restrict the use of loud explosions in the habitat of rare marine animals with very sensitive hearing organs that are also essential for their navigation. Particularly as sound conducts much better in water than in air.
When I took part in a research cruise to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica (back in 2005) there was actually a restriction on even the scientific use of small seismic surveys for marine geological baseline research. Special permits had to be applied for from the relevant government ddepartments of participating nations – in the end the only country that granted a permit was Russia.
There are also (as far as I am aware) reasonable restrictions on using seismic surveys in the North Atlantic by Europe, the U.S. and Canada, that require observers to check (as far as possible) that no whales are in the area before the survey starts.
I am not aware of any such restrictions in the South China Sea, although my knowledge of PRC laws and regulations is poor and perhaps such rules exist after all (feel free to point out any errors in the comments below).
Sometimes it is very amusing and interesting to realize how different we see the environment now in 2015 compared to our attitudes the last century. A case in point is this gem of a news article from 1933 about a 25-foot (7.6 m) whale that stranded in Macau. Today, we would go to extraordinary efforts and spare no cost to rescue the whale and help it out to sea. Back in 1933 attitudes were a bit different, however…
“Much excitement was created in the little fishing hamlet of Tsam Mang Chin, not far from the Macao Barrier Gate, when a whale, 25 feet long, drifted ashore and was left high and dry on the beach when the tide went out.
The villagers were all activity, when the monster was sighted, and measures were promptly taken to prevent its escape. The whale was soon dragged higher up the beach, where it was killed, and operations to convert the oil and remains into cash were immediately carried out.
All day long, villagers from the surrounding country trooped into the hamlet to buy the whale oil and the flesh until nothing was left of the monster excepting the bones.
A fee was later charged for viewing the skeleton.
Some idea of the size of the whale may be gathered from the fact that a thousand catties [500 kg] of oil and twice the amount of flesh were sold by the captors.”
(Hong Kong Telegraph February 3rd, 1933)
These days, however, a “big whale” in Macau refers to big-ticket casino gamblers from mainland China. But with the anti-corruption campaign ongoing in China, the new “big whales” seem to be facing the same sort of steep decline that the real whales faced in the 20th century!
It appears that shortly after the first sighting of a short-finned pilot in Hong Kong (see post from January 14th), we now have the first stranding of a dead short-finned pilot whale. Ocean Park’s Cetacean Stranding Response Team investigated an adult female short-finned pilot whale stranding case today at Cheung Sha Lan, Discovery Bay. It’s 365cm long and as the carcass was severely decomposed, the cause of death cannot be determined. The Team and a veterinarian have done a necropsy on site. The preliminary findings show:
• A 12cm superficial wound was found near the fluke, though it unclear if this is pre-mortem or post-mortem
• A thin blubber layer of 1.5cm (mean blubber layer thickness of adult female short-finned pilot whale is 1.91cm), indicating that the dolphin was relatively thin and weak
The team sent the head, flippers and dorsal fin to Hong Kong Veterinary Imaging Centre for Computed Tomography (CT) scanning, and collected tissue samples for further testing.
Many people asked if this short-finned pilot whale is the same one people sighted at Tsim Sha Tsui on January 13. The dorsal fins on cetaceans have unique characteristics that allow identification of individuals, but since the dolphin’s dorsal fin was severely decomposed, no identification can be made as yet. Yet, as short-finned pilot whales are rare in Hong Kong, and the length of the carcass is similar to the estimated length of the pilot whale sighted in Tsim Sha Tsui (about 3 meter), the possibility can not be ruled out that they are the same individual.
In case you are wondering how this white carcass could have come from a black short-finned pilot whale: this often happens to decomposing whales and dolphins. I once saw a 0.5 m Finless porpoise washed up dead at the Cape D’Aguilar Marine Reserve. Normally Finless Porpoises are black, but the carcass was also white.
A 3.3 m long, 386 kg whale was found by hikers on Friday (26th September 2014) on the rocky shoreline at Fung Hang village near Sha Tau Kok (NE New Territories). Due to the remote location of the site, AFCD staff decided to suspend the investigation, as night fell. Officers tied the dead whale with a rope to fix it on the beach and prevent it from drifting away during the rising tide. Experts joined the investigation the following day to identify the dead whale species and the cause of death.
Images by Ocean Park Conservation Fund. 9/2014.
The whale did not have any obvious fatal wounds or signs of infection, but had begun to rot and some of the gray-black skin was peeing off.
A preliminary veterinary inspection suggests that it is a pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps).
The Pygmy Sperm Whale
Drawing showing relative size of a Pygmy Sperm Whale and a human
This species is normally found in deep waters several hundred to a thousand meters deep such as off Taiwan’s east coast. Hong Kong waters are only tens of meters deep, so pygmy sperm whales generally do not live or pass through Hong Kong. Most likely the whale got lost or was already dying while passing by Hong Kong waters and then drifted in to shore.
Skin , teeth, subcutaneous fat , heart, reproductive system and muscle samples were taken for further testing and City University of Hong Kong will receive the whale carcasses to produce bone specimens.
A three-meter whale weighing four tons was stranded on a beach in the city of Yangjiang (about 230 km west of Hong Kong), in Guangdong province, on July 19, 2014. Local police officers and soldiers helped the whale back into the waters after it was washed ashore by waves during super typhoon Rammasun which hit Southern China. It was the strongest typhoon to hit the region in four decades, and brought gales and downpours.
Some media outlets (West Palm Beach TV , NBC Netwwork) initially reported it as a “killer whale” (Orcinus orca), but it is actually a juvenile baleen whale – either a Fin, Bryde’s or Sei Whale (the pictures unfortunately don’t show enough details). China Daily also praises the police and soldiers for rescuing the animal, but the pictures show quite clearly that most of the manpower actually came from life guards.
As the smallest baleen whales can be ruled out, the size of the individual means its a juvenile, perhaps even recently born. Although the efforts to save the whale are admirable, I suspect that separated from its mother and her milk this calf will highly likely die soon.
CCTV also included an image, not seen elsewhere on the web, showing soldiers rescuing the whale, although the image looks quite photoshopped and the weather seems much brighter in that one image….quite why anyone has to manipulate the image here I can’t understand, there is no political connotation here that I can recognize…
The bloated carcass of a whale the length of a bus has been found at a remote beach in the New Territories’ northeastern tip.
The 10.8-metre-long animal, found beached in an inner bay off Hung Shek Mun, in Plover Cove Country Park, was thought to be a female Bryde’s whale.
When marine experts arrived yesterday morning, the rotting carcass was lying partially submerged in the shallow water, giving off a stench. It had a number of cuts on its body.
About 10 government and Ocean Park experts in protective gear were still inspecting the dead whale early yesterday evening. Police said a hiker had reported seeing a “huge fish” floating off Hung Shek Mun on Saturday evening.
“It looks like a Bryde’s whale,” Dolphin Conservation Society chairman Samuel Hung Ka-yiu said after seeing footage and pictures of the animal on the news. “It could have died at sea and then drifted in.”
Hung said it could have been dead for a couple of days since the carcass was bloated.
The authorities have yet to decide how to dispose of the dead whale. One option would be to cut up its carcass and remove it piece by piece.
Bryde’s whales, which can grow up to about 15 metres and weigh up to 40 tonnes, prefer warmer waters. Males are usually slightly smaller than females.
In 2009, a 10-metre-long humpback whale was spotted in Hong Kong waters. It was believed to be the first sighting of the species in the city. Experts believed the animal accidentally entered Hong Kong harbour after getting lost.
In 1994, the carcass of a Bryde’s whale was found in Tolo Harbour.
On the 12th of April 1955, a 9m long juvenile male finback whale (Balaenoptera physalus) was found dying in Victoria Harbour. It was subsequently humanely killed and towed to Aberdeen where it was cut into pieces. The meat was given to refugees while the skeleton was stripped of flesh and dried. Later it was put together and mounted at HKU. Because of damage to the skeleton, the mounting was refurbished in the 1990’s and the skeleton is now on display in front of the main building of the Swire Institute of Marine Science at Cape D’Aguilar.