A note of thanks from young Seth

Last week I had the privilege of interacting with young 7 year old Seth at the museum. His interest in the natural world was encouraging and I was taken by his enthusiasm during our gallery tour. As much as a spark may have been ignited in him he kept my enthusiasm fired up as well and it was a treat to have him visit.

I also appreciated the kind note received from his grandmother Mrs Carol Flint who arranged the visit.

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Live male humpback stranding 29 June 2019

On the 20 May 2019 a live 9.5 m female humpback whale beached near Hickmans River (East London). The animal died overnight and this second report of a humpback was approximately 5 km’s east of this standing this past weekend. An attempt was made by museum scientist Kevin Cole and volunteers to rescue the Hickman’s humpback whale but sadly to no avail. The whale illustrated below had been moved by high seas over the rock line landwards when still alive and there was no way of considering a rescue. The stranding took place on the West Bank of East London, below and slightly west of the Hood Point Lighthouse.

Photo credit: Alan Eason
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A budding scientist Akhanani dons his white coat

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Hawksbill turtle record, Gonubie (East London) SA

A Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) was reported yesterday having washed up at Gonubie. It was retrieved today by the museum and a partial necropsy undertaken to determine whether there was any ingestion of marine debris – the result was negative. This critically endangered species occasionally visits our seas (east coast) but never breeds along our coast. The bill is strongly hooked (hence the name ‘hawksbill’) and the plates on the upper surface are imbricated (arranged so that they overlap like roof tiles) giving it the species name imbricata.

There has been an 80% decline in Hawksbill numbers over the past century. Only about 8 000 females worldwide nest every 2-3 years (about a 1 000 nesting annually) producing between 60-200 eggs. These turtles are particularly threatened by the wildlife trade as they are collected from the tropics for their colourful yellow and brown carapace plates that are used to make tortoiseshell items (‘bekko’” or ‘carey’) for ornaments and jewellery.

They can grow to 90 cm in length and the specimen pictured measured 40 cm with a width of 33 cm. The total length of the head measured 8 cm. Turtles have been around for more than 100 million years and sadly this record comes less than a week after World Turtle Day (May 23rd).

Gerhard Pretorius is thanked for reporting this find and Dean Brown is thanked for securing the specimen for the museum.

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Hickman’s River humpback whale stranding update

Sadly the 9.5 m humpback did not survive the night. Museum scientist Kevin Cole was on site at sunrise and found the animal had passed on.

Members of the public who assisted yesterday in trying to rescue the whale are thanked for their efforts. In particular, Deon Willmers and his son Storm and Keith Dunmore and his wife Brenda for being on site early to to keep the whale watered down and by covering the eyes to protect them from the sun. Jarrod Smith also assisted in keeping the whale cool until the museum arrived.

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Humpback whale stranding, Hickman’s River (East London)

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Humpback whale stranding, Kei Mouth (South Africa)

Yesterday museum scientist Kevin Cole went out to the small coastal town of Kei Mouth to sample a 12.3 m male humpback whale which had stranded during the night after being reported seen drifting live at 19h20 on Saturday 30th March 2019. Video footage revealed a very emaciated individual with labored breathing.

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Easily identified by the wing-like flippers (in this case measuring 3.67 m)  and a head comprising about 30% of the body length  with the upper surface of the snout, chin and mandibles  noticeably covered in raised tubercles which can present with a single hair.

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Baleen plates are attached to the upper jaw and humpback whales have an average of 325 plates in each series (both sides of the jaw with the longest measuring between 80-100 cm).

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Baleen plates still attached to the gum which has dislodged from the jaw

Key identification features for this species are the large flippers (in some cases reaching a length almost 1/3 the total body length of the animal), the dorsal fin set 2/3 back on the whale, the papillae on the rostrum and the scalloped trailing edge of the flukes (tail).

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Humpback whales move between the summer feeding grounds of the Antarctic to the winter breeding grounds further north (more tropical) passing the East London coast as the begin their migration in April (having reached the Knysna coast at this time).  These seasonal migrations are up to 16 000 km’s in range.

These whales can grow to a length of 15 m with females being larger than males.

As the whale decomposes and bloats there can be an expression of the genitalia in males as illustrated below (penis of the male humpback whale).

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They have a characteristic V-shaped bushy blow. Flipper slapping, breaching and lob tailing are important behavioral traits for communication. Diving can last for 3-15 minutes and sometimes up to 40 minutes reaching depths of 150 m.

Pictured below is the left eye of the male humpback whale (18 cm in length).

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Hundreds of whale lice were noted on the specimen (an external parasite). These little crustaceans feed on the skin of the whale and are mostly found in crevices in the folds of the skin. They live entirely on the whale and certain species only live on particular whale species such as the ones illustrated on this humpback whale.

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The stranded specimen also had three shark bites to the body (tail end). These were most probably inflicted while the ill, slow moving animal was still alive. They would not have been the cause of death.

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The length of the blow-hole was measured at 46 cm with a width of 24 cm (illustrated below).

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Blubber, skin and muscle samples were taken for further analysis as well as a sample of baleen. These will be sent to Dr Greg Hofmeyr at the Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld).

This is the second humpback whale stranding in the area within 6 months (the last being a short distance away at Cape Morgan). The stranding was reported to the museum by Mrs Barbara Strydom of Kei Mouth and Ms Siani Tinley of the Buffalo City Metro (Senior Manager, Zoological and Marine Services).

Mr Bryan Church (Strandloper Trail Manager) has been a great help in documenting the whale and assisting the museum in liaising with authorities at the site with regard to the disposal of the carcass. The Great Kei Municipality has the permitted authority to remove the carcass to be disposed of at a land-fill site.

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Museum scientist Kevin Cole points to one of three shark bite marks on the stranded humpback whale at Kei Mouth. The other two can be seen closer to the tail.

Reference: Whales and dolphins of the southern African subregion by Peter B. Best

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