It’s always tragic when something dies, and it’s lamentable that a Sperm Whale had to die on the beach at Hunstanton here in Norfolk on Friday. I have been asked so many questions about this I thought it deserved a special post in Letter from Norfolk.
The stranding was part of a larger event throughout the southern North Sea. I’ve laid out chronologically the strandings below.
8th January two dead Sperm Whales found beached at Wangerooge in Germany
12th January two carcasses seen floating at Heligoland, Germany
12th January five live stranded on Texel in Holland
13th January one was found dead stranded in the mouth of the Weser in Germany with another stranded near Büsum
14th January a dead carcass washed ashore on Texel Holland
22nd January one live stranded at Hunstanton but died that evening two others stranded but refloated themselves on the tide two or perhaps three others seen further out at sea
24th January three stranded on the beach at Skegness in Lincolnshire.
25th January a single Sperm Whale stranded at Wainfleet in Lincolnshire
That makes 17 Sperm Whales in total with possibility of another one still out there – let’s hope it gets to deeper water. It’s possible they were all from the same pod, but that remains inconclusive.
Well done to the British Divers Marine Life Rescue team, coastguards and staff at the Sealife Centre in Hunstanton for staying with the whale on the Norfolk shore until it passed away. Little could be done to help the hapless beast other than keep it wet and wait for the next high tide. It’s even impractical to euthanize such a large creature so sadly it’s a cruel waiting game. The tide had moved the carcass a little further north when I visited it on Saturday. It had come to rest among the skeletal wreck of the Steam Trawler Sheraton.
Sperm Whales are just magnificent creatures, that are superbly adapted to their deep water environment. They think nothing of diving to 2km to hunt for squid; their main food. They have the largest brain of any creature on the planet but despite that they, like us, make mistakes. This mass stranding is not without president. They have happened throughout recorded history; especially in the funnel shaped North Sea.
Males visit the arctic and sub-arctic each summer to feed, leaving the females and young in temperate and sub-tropical waters. The males move back south in late autumn/winter.
Their predetermined natural compass wants to take them SW from the Arctic into the deep waters of the Atlantic. If they go to the east of Scotland by mistake they will end up in the shallow North Sea. Once animals get into the water here that is only 20 to 30m deep their sonar ceases to be able to pick up landmarks so becomes ineffectual. Lost and unable to feed they get confused. Confusion that may be made worse by toxins and plastic litter that these animals eat by mistake. If a Sperm Whale doesn’t eat they dehydrate as all their fluid intake is obtained from the food they eat. If animals stop too long in the Arctic perhaps tempted by warmer temperatures they may run out of food. Unable to eat when they get into the North Sea the result is inevitable. If one whale runs into trouble because they are such a communal animal others will follow to try and help.
These events appear to be happening with increasing frequency. We stopped hunting these animals in the 1970’s and numbers are recovering so maybe that’s why strandings are becoming a more frequent event. Still sad to see such a magnificent leviathan stranded on the rocks at Hunstanton.
Better to see one unbridled in the ocean like this … taken in the Azores last year. However, I am heartened by the interest these animals have generated.