Whale of A Tale
Whales have inhabited the world’s ocean for millions of years, long before man set foot on the earth. They are some of the most beloved creatures on our planet earth. Although they inhabit the seas and oceans, whales are not fish. They are marine mammals perfectly adapted to living in their ocean environment. Their limbs have evolved into flippers and their bodies are smooth and streamlined for ease of movement through the water. Like all mammals, including humans they breathe air, carry their young in a womb, give live birth and suckle their young.
They can be divided into two families. Toothed whales, which include dolphins and porpoises, and the baleen or great whales. Baleen whales no longer have teeth but have fibrous growths called baleen, which they use to filter tiny animals called plankton from the sea. There are 35 different species of whales and dolphins found in the wider Caribbean region, yet we still know very little about them.
One of the most unusual and misunderstood behaviours exhibited by these creatures are strandings. What is a stranding? According to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a stranding (or beaching) is defined as any dead marine mammal on a beach/ floating nearshore or any live marine mammal on a beach or in water so shallow that it is unable to free itself.
At a recently held workshop at the Mt. Hope Medical Sciences Complex, experts in the field of marine mammal science came together to discuss stranding response in the Eastern Caribbean. Participants in the workshop came from all parts of the Eastern Caribbean including Barbados, Grenada, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago.
The workshop was a collaborative effort by the UWI Veterinary School, United States NOAA – Fisheries, UNEP, the Eastern Caribbean Cetacean Network, MARVET Grenada and the Smithsonian Marine Mammal Laboratory. Participants reviewed techniques and protocols for responding to stranding incidents of whales and dolphins, were familiarised with marine mammal necropsy techniques and began initiating collaboration between their respective countries.
So why do whales strand? Most of the experts agree that there isn’t one clear reason for these occurrences. However, it is generally believed that when one whale or dolphin is stranded it is usually (but not necessarily) because that animal may be sick or dying. In the event of a group stranding, it is considered a social event; with one animal being sick or disorientated and the rest of the pod following it into shallow water and in turn getting stranded themselves.
These strandings whether single or as a group can be a natural occurrence or as we are beginning to see more frequently, caused by human interactions such as chemical pollution, collisions from boats and ships, seismic exploration, commercial and recreational fishing. So why bother to set up a stranding network(s) in the first place especially when an animal is found dead or dying?
Much can be learned from marine mammal strandings. Strandings not only help to identify cause of death but also offer more fundamental information. Species identification, data collection of samples regarding age, growth, feeding and reproduction are just some of the valuable information that can be gained. From these samples we can also learn about contaminant levels. A dolphin that may have died due to high levels of contaminants has direct implications for human health as they consume many of the same fish that we do.
Stranding networks are not only important for the data that can be collected from dead animals but even more so, to assist with returning living animals back to their natural habitats. Trinidad & Tobago has had its fair share of strandings with at least 7 recorded strandings in Trinidad and 2 recorded strandings in Tobago between 1987 and 2005.
Most notable of these were the stranding of 25 short-finned pilots whales on Manzanilla beach, Trinidad in 1999. More recently in 2004 the stranding of a 40ft Bryde’s Whale at La Brea and 3 rough-toothed dolphins at Culloden Bay, Tobago.
Response to most of these events has been ad-hoc at best, clearly mitigating the need for such a network. It is hoped that in the near future a marine mammal stranding network will be established in Trinidad and Tobago with Government agencies, NGOs and other interested parties collaborating together. This network can then be used as a model for other countries in the Eastern Caribbean.
If you find a whale or dolphin stranded on a beach please contact Environment TOBAGO 660-7462, Save Our Sea Turtles 639-0026 or the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment 639-CARE.
In the mean time, what can you do? If help is not at hand immediately and the animal is still alive:
Ø Get help! You can’t do it alone. Contact the Authorities.
Ø Pour water over the animal to keep it cool. Putting wet towels over it will help as well as prevent sunburn. Make sure not to cover up or pour water into it’s blowhole. Remember they breathe air!!!
Ø Keep the area around the animal clear of people and do not make loud noises.
Ø Monitor the animal’s breathing by looking at its blowhole (you will see when it opens and closes).
Ø Do not stand by the animal’s mouth or tail as it can cause injury to you.
Ø Do not pull the animal by its tail or flippers, as these are very delicate.
Ø Try to get a measurement of the animal’s body.
Ø If you have a camera, take pictures of the animal’s whole body, head, dorsal fin, tail and any markings on the body. These will be useful for identification at a later time.
Juvenile Rough Toothed Dolphin (Steno bredanensis) found dead after stranding itself on Culloden Bay, Tobago
Local fisherman releasing an adult Rough Toothed Dolphin which stranded itself on Culloden Bay, Tobago