When I stepped out of my van and saw the whale that had stranded early on Saturday on Edinburgh’s shore, just 10 minutes from my flat, it took me a minute to compose myself. Although led on his side, belly facing the beach, mostly submerged by the rising tide, there was no doubt this was a sperm whale. Although he wasn’t quite fully grown, a whale ‘teenager’, at almost 14 metres he was still a sight to behold.
As the day drew on the crowds increased. Everyone was filled with wonder at this mysterious creature from the deep that was now just 50 metres from our shore. Emotions were high. There was a general feeling of excitement, but also sadness, and several people I spoke to were moved to tears.
Someone reported seeing other whales in the area first thing on Saturday morning. I kept my eye on the horizon through the hours of daylight, sure I would see any blows on this calm, frosty January day. None were seen. It is almost exclusively male sperm whales that strand in Scottish waters because the females stay in warmer seas, whilst the males migrate north to feed on Arctic and sub-Arctic squid. Sperm whales are sociable animals. This male may have been returning from a foraging trip north with his bachelor friends and post mortem can help us to understand this by studying stomach contents.
At 26 tonnes, it was a huge undertaking to move this whale from the beach to a suitable place to enable post mortem to learn what we could about cause of death. It was today that the post mortem was conducted by the expert SMASS team and I was fortunate enough to assist. Detailed post mortem results will take some time, but initial findings were that the whale didn’t die due to any obvious human induced cause. He had evenly spaced tooth rake marks on the front of his head (with roughly the same distance between each as his own tooth spacing), suggesting various interactions with whales about his size. Maybe relatives or companions in his bachelor pod?
There were also handfuls of squid beaks in his stomach.
Did this whale, and possibly his pod, make a navigational error and end up in the North Sea by mistake? Did the other whales stay with this whale until he stranded and perished before making their onward journey, and do they still think of their young companion? These are challenging questions to answer. We have so much more to learn about these deep ocean giants that live in sociable family groups, care for one another and show cultural learning in their societies.
Thanks to Martin Scott for the initial report, to all those involved in the recovery, BDMLR, HM Coastguard, local Councils – especially the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme team – and to everyone who came out to see and learn about the whale.