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Mossel Bay
1st March 2024
Community & LivingNature & NurtureUncategorised

The stranding of a whale

With the recent stranding of a humpback whale at Pienaarstrand, the question was once again raised why we need to euthanise a whale. What the general public might not be aware of, is that there is a whole lot of protocols, rules and regulations to adhere to with a live stranding of a whale. Experience all over the world has shown that whales seem to prefer not to die at sea and would rather beach themselves when old or ill. For a 12 to 20ton animal to die of natural causes can take days and it is a slow and painful death as the organs will crush under the weight. They were not created to lie on a beach!
An event such as this at Pienaarstrand, always creates a lot of emotion. Nobody can decide by themselves that an animal has to be euthanized. This is done by looking at detailed photos and if possible, video footage that is sent to a veterinarian and a Cetacean specialist. There are definite signs/symptoms of an ill animal that the specialists can identify. The position it is lying on the beach, tides, currents – everything is also taken into consideration. Once the call for euthanising the animal has been made, authorization by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has to be obtained and the team that has to euthanize the animal will be either alerted or will already be on the scene and they can start with preparing the event. Once again, human safety is priority and if the animal is still in the water due to tides or currents, the whole process might be delayed.
After euthanasia, scientific samples will be taken as per prescribed protocol. These samples will be sent to DEA for future reference. If the tide and location of the carcass allow it, a full necropsy (post mortem) might be done to determine the cause of death. Local government is responsible for the removal of carcasses from beaches if they are in, or close to residential areas. The ideal would be to tow the carcass offshore, put weights on it and sink it to the bottom of the ocean and create what is called a “whale fall”. Unfortunately, it is not financially feasible and with our busy shipping lane, it might also cause damage to ships in the event of the carcass emerging for some reason.
The preferred method of euthanizing a whale world-wide is by implosion because it is quick and effective. A pre-determined number of explosives are fastened onto the head of the whale and then detonated from a distance. The whole idea behind this is to target the brain of the animal. The downward implosion causes immediate death. Sometimes muscle spasms can cause the fluke or pectoral fins to still move after detonation. There is a hole about the size of a large plate left afterwards with no blubber, muscle or organs all over the area, as some people believe. This operation may only be executed by the Explosive experts of the SAPS.
The role that stranding networks such as S.M.A.R.T (Stranded Marine Animal Rescue Team) play, are purely that of keeping the public informed and creating a safe space for the explosive team and scientists to do their jobs, while communicating with media and liaising with DEA and other role players. Sometimes the animal also needs protection and these days with cell phone cameras, everybody wants to take a photo. The animal lying on the beach is still very much alive and the power of the fluke and pectoral fins can easily kill a person and we don’t know what is wrong with the animal and disease can be spread.

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