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Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa marine mammal expert Anton van Helden’s interest was sparked just before Christmas when I sent him photos of a dead beaked whale washed up south of Haast. From the photos he couldn’t be sure what species it was, but had a hunch that it was something quite rare and special. So my colleague Neil Freer and I headed out to get a skin sample to send up to Auckland University for DNA testing.

Collecting a skin sample for DNA analysis to identify this species

The excitement was tinged with sadness, as a local fishing crew at Jackson Bay had tried and failed to save this whale a couple of days before it turned up dead. Early morning on Friday 25th November they spotted a small whale stranded on the rocks in a pool of blood and managed to re-float it. Then on Sunday the Haast school principal Liz Hawker sent this photo of a dog investigating a carcass on the Waiatoto spit.

Local pooch investigates an interesting discovery on the Waiatoto spit (Photo courtesy of Liz Hawker)

In order to keep the carcass from disappearing into the Tasman Sea local councillor and farmer Kerry Eggling was enlisted to move it up into the scrub, where it was laid on a sheet of filter cloth to catch any small bones. Then we left it to decompose while we waited for news of the species ID from scientists Rochelle Constantine and Emma Carroll at Auckland University.

Local Kerry Eggling provides the muscle to move this 1.4 tonne beast up above the high tide mark

Stages of decomposition

Over the next few weeks this 1.4 tonne mass of blubber gradually disintegrated into a pile of bones and gloop.

The carcass was placed on filter cloth in November to catch any small bones. It had already been pecked by gulls

By December 27th bugs and larger scavengers had exposed parts of the skeleton

On the 24th January most of the flesh had rotted away to gloop

Then after Christmas we got the news that it was indeed a female True’s beaked whale, a species never before seen in New Zealand or Pacific Ocean waters.

True Facts

The True’s Beaked Whale is named after F.W. True of the US National Museum, who first scientifically described this species in 1913.  Until now, True’s beaked whale was known only from about 20 dead animals and a handful of live sightings, in the southern Indian Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean.

Beaked whales (known to Maori as hakura) are a group of deep-diving whales that usually live out in the open ocean.  They are often hard to see at sea because they spend very little time at the surface and usually stay away from the coast.  They mostly feed on squid, but also eat fish, using in-built sonar to find their prey in the dark waters of the deep ocean.  Before it died, this True’s Beaked Whale was probably feeding in the deep underwater canyons that come close in to the South Westland coast.

Chart showing the deep underwater canyons of the South Westland coast. (Chart courtesy of NIWA)

The only teeth these whales have are two tusks at the tip of their lower jaw.  Only in the males do these tusks poke out from their gums, and they are probably used to attract females as well as to battle other males.   The tusks are not visible in females.

When we went to get a skin sample gulls were scavenging the carcass and had already pecked out an eye

Decomposition and scavengers uncovered the beak structure, but no teeth could be seen

It was important to preserve such a rare find to improve our understanding of these elusive creatures, so DOC marine technical support officer Don Neale, skilled whale dissector Ramari Stewart and Te Runanga o Makaawhio representative Nathanieal Scott all gave up their Waitangi day holiday to recover the skeleton for Te Papa museum.

Ramari begins the work with a karakia and hangs a piece of whale flesh nearby for protection

Ramari carries a lot of experience with the tikanga (practices) and matauranga maori (traditional knowledge) of whale strandings.  A lot of the tikanga behind the work helps to ensure the safety of the kaimahi (workers) and a successful result. 

The tikanga includes setting out “clean” and “dirty” areas on the site so that the sometimes hazardous paru (muck) is confined to a small area and as few of the kaimahi as necessary. 

Designated “clean kaimahi” Don keeps Ramari and Nathanieal hydrated

This was absolutely essential, as the filter sheet hadn’t worked as well as hoped to drain away bodily fluids and the carcass was still pretty gloopy and very, very stinky. Ramari warned that anaerobic bacteria in the carcass can be very hazardous.

Ramari insisted this pool of rotting flesh was the nastiest she had worked with. Even worse than recovering bones from pickled whales buried for up to 15 years! The paru made it very hard to sift out the more delicate bones like small flipper fragments.

The exclamation of “paru” was heard many times during the day!

When she got into collecting flipper bones from the muck just below the rib cage Ramari was a bit puzzled to find some small bones that didn’t seem to belong. Then all of a sudden we heard her exclaim “now I know what’s going on!” These tiny bones didn’t belong to the dead female after all, we realised that two of these rare True’s beaked whales had perished on the Waiatoto spit. The adult female had been pregnant when she died.

Ramari recognises part of the tiny jawbone of the whale’s foetus

While we were working Ramari called the whale Niho Ngore alluding to the female True’s lack of teeth. Te Runanga o Makaawhio will officially name her at a later date.

Before the heavy skull could be safely moved a lot of flesh had to be cut away

Loading the skeleton to send to Hokitika for further cleaning and preservation

Cleaning up the skeleton will take a few more months yet, but when she’s ready Niho Ngore and her baby will be sent with a blessing from Te Runanga o Makaawhio to rest in the nation’s precious collections of biological and cultural treasures at Te Papa Tongarewa.  There they will be available for scientists and visitors to find out more about this rare animal and its place in the world’s oceans.