2009 March 15th Another whale entanglement: a calf, its mother with a shark bite on her fluke Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   

We set off today on Sea Slipper with Michael Smith, Camilla Stringer, Kevin Horsfield and myself at 8 am. As we were approaching the point at Sally Tuckers I noticed a spout on the Bermuda platform in about 60-70 feet of water. We observed this whale from a distance as we tried to figure out what it was doing. It remined in the same area so it wasn't travelling anywhere and there was no whale song when I put the hydrophone overboard. We continued to observe this whale which seemed to be sleeping or resting in shallow water when suddenly she breached three times in a row.

  

  

  

  

After breaching three times she lay on her back and slapped both pectoral fins on the surface of the water. Almost immediately we saw a calf about half a mile away tail lob more than 20 times. It's mother rolled over and made her way over to the calf at 11.25 am at N32 14 393 W64 58 811. Fully expecting to get some underwater video of the mother and calf, I was in the water several times in their vicinity with the engine off, expecting them to come and inspect me. At times we drifted into very shallow water, as little as 30 feet, but the calf never came to me although it was within a hundred feet of us.

The calf had scarring on its back and I have seen in the past that calves with scars tend to be very shy and the mothers very protective. It wasn't until we returned home that evening and I was sorting through the photographs that I saw the calf had an entanglement around its head. Below left you see the scarred back of the calf, and closer up views of its head. This green polypropylene rope or net will not degrade and the entanglement around or in the calf's mouth will prevent it from opening it. This animal will slowly starve until it is picked on by predators.

  

The mother had a chunk taken out of the trailing edge of her right fluke. This wound I guessed to be relatively recent because part of the flesh was still hanging from the fluke. But If the rope is entangled in the calf's mouth it could have drawn blood, attracting the sharks. I couldn't understand how a shark, or even an orca, if there are any around Bermuda, could take a chunk out of the fluke of a fully grown, healthy female. However, if she is tired from protecting her calf and she is weak too (the breach photos reveal a very boney female) perhaps she would be vulnerable to shark attack. Below are some of the photos of the bite in the mother's fluke and in the photos below you can see the chunk of flesh hanging down.

 

 

The mother was not a happy animal. These photos were all taken with a telephoto lens and then cropped using Adobe Photoshop so we weren't as close as it might appear!

 

What we did learn from today is that the whales obviously use breaching, tail lobbing and pec slapping as a means of communication and establishing location. The mother breached and pec slapped until the calf responded. Once with the calf, the mother breached again several times until a male escort came alongside her. Despite all this surface activity, when I was in the water I did not hear any vocalizations and we didn't pick any up on the hydrophone.

For the second time in a week it was a sad evening once I realized the dire condition of the calf. If the rope is entangled in its mouth it will have destroyed the delicate baleen used to filter out the water and keep its food in its mouth.

The debris we leave in the oceans kills these innocent and gentle animals, and the calves with their innate curiousity and lack of experience are particularly prone to playing with buoys attached to ropes. The calves are often curious and seem to revel in being alive, sometimes dancing innocently around a swimmer. This poor calf and its mother were in no mood to play and  shunned our human presence, with good reason.

 Camilla's data sheet can be found under 'Diary data sheets'.

 
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