Animals | February 28, 2023 1:10 PM | hangbony
It took rescuers 32 hours to get the distressed whale back into the sea.
A 65-foot (9-meter)-long sperm whale stranded on a mud flat near Ningbo, China, was towed back to sea last week. (Image credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
A huge sperm whale stranded in the shallows near Ningbo, China, was towed back to sea last week after a strenuous 20-hour rescue.
The whale’s ultimate fate, however, will probably never be known. Strandings are difficult on sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), and animals don’t always survive even if they are resuscitated, said Brce Mate, professor emeritus in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation and the past director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.
“Good on them for making a noble effort in trying to get this animal back to sea, but the odds are very difficult,” Mate told Live Science.
The sperm whale was floundering in the shallows when it was spotted by fishermen on April 19, according to U.K. news outlet Sky News (opens in a new tab). Video from China’s state news channel showed the animal flapping its tail, unable to move its body.
As the tide went out, the 62-foot-long (19-meter) whale was left lying on its side on a mudflat, in danger of suffocating under its own weight or dying of dehydration. Heat is among the greatest dangers to a stranded sperm whale, Mate said. These whales are deep-sea hunters that regularly hunt for prey in the frigid waters more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) below the ocean surface. The air temperature in Ningbo peaked at above 66 degrees Fahrenheit (19 degrees Celsius) on April 19. Even though that isn’t hot for a human, temperate regulation is different for sperm whales.
“Blbber keeps internal body heat in and leads to overheating if the whale cannot get rid of the heat another way,” Mate said. “Getting rid of body heat is done [in] a variety of ways, including water contact with the skin, especially at thin surfaces, like flkes and flippers, and very vascular areas, like the tonge. It is not possible for the whale to do this when it is out of the water.”
Local authorities attempted a rescue with five boats, according to the South China Morning Post (opens in a new tab), but the whale was too large to move. Volunteers used buckets to douse the whale with water as they waited for the tide to rise.
Residents near Ningbo, China, attempt to keep a beached sperm whale cool as they wait for the tide to rise enough to tow the stricken animal back to sea.
Finally, at 10 p.m. local time, the water rose enough for a tugboat to plunk the whale deeper into the ocean, according to Metro U.K. (opens in a new tab). At 5:30 a.m. local time on April 20, authorities were able to cut the ropes towing the whale, and the animal began swimming independently.
Given its size, the whale was probably an adult male, Mate said. That was likely a blessing: Sperm whale females and juveniles live in pods. When a female, calf, or young male in a pod strands, the rest of the pod may follow it, drawn by the stranded whale’s distress cries. The result, Mate said, is often mass death. In the early 1970s, he responded to a stranding of 43 sperm whales along the Oregon coast. Not a single animal survived. Adlt males, in contrast, live alone. That means the adult male in Ningbo is also stranded alone, limiting the damage to the population as a whole.
Strandings can occur for different reasons. In some cases, there is something wrong with the whale that affects its ability to survive in the long run, Mate said. Not long after the 1970s mass stranding in Oregon, another calf was found in the same area, floundering in the shallows. More than two dozen members of the whale’s pod hovered just offshore, seemingly poised to follow the distressed calf. Mate and other biologists and volunteers managed to get the calf out of the water so it could no longer communicate with its pod. To the researcher’s relief, the other whales trotted away and swam back into the sea.
The calf, meanwhile, was taken to an oceanarium for rehabilitation. There, it died within days. A necropsy revealed that the calf had a twisted gt, a condition that occurs when the gt literally twists in on itself, constricting blood supply and causing shock. In pets and farm animals, this condition is often known as “bloat.”
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