A personal encounter with a female Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

By Kevin Cole

On Sunday 19th June 2016 at approximately 9h20 I received a call from Ms Siani Tinley, Chief Marine Services for the Buffalo City Metro (East London, SA). Siani reported that a large whale had beached alive at a well-known promontory of coastal sandstone called Cove Rock west of the city limits.

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I responded immediately and arrived at the stranding after a brisk walk along the beach. I was met by EL Aquarium colleague Ilse Rheeder and her brother. A few folk had gathered at the site and looked on intrigued by this huge marine mammal which was trapped in the high tide zone.

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Our first action was to free the left fluke from the sand to allow the animal the opportunity to move her whole body freely. This was successful but the substantial weight (estimated at 40 tonnes) worked against the whale as the receding sea water (after each low wave action) burrowed the animal into a trough of sand.

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It was decided to wait for the incoming tide later in the day (3 pm) and to consider appropriate action as the water depth increased. I had over the ensuing hour made a lot of eye contact with the whale and noted her following gaze as I stood close by. At some undetermined point there was a silent connection between us revealed by the whale’s physical response to my presence and continued eye contact. I decided to be encouraging to the whale as I am with our pet dogs ….. in a gentle voice I began speaking words of her return to deeper water and the patience needed to wait for the high tide to arrive. As the waters slowly spread more around her 22m long body she tried to wriggle free. I calmed her down as the water was not deep enough to present enough flotation for her heavy head and mid-body region. At some point I remember assisting her (with the help of Illse’s brother) to free her left flipper which had also become slightly imbedded in the sand.

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The hours slowly crept by and the waters rose with a measure of roughness and powerful waves. I was reasonably confident that the high tide would give her a chance to manoeuvre off the sand bar to water deep enough to perhaps allow her to navigate out of the small bay which had trapped her. Cove Rock is a well-known whale watching spot, with deep water just beyond some dramatic wave cut platforms. This was possibly the reason that an unfortunate navigation error on her part and very large swells and seas (the night before) had led her to the predicament which now saw her trapped landward ‘behind’ Cove Rock.

An hour or so after midday  I started to urgently communicate with the whale to initiate attempts to roll herself seaward. Making direct eye contact and with a heavy heave her first attempt was a half roll before a wave crashed her back to her original position. Settling into a quiet banter I spoke of freedom and the encouraging aspect of deeper water arriving soon to assist her. As the heavier seas encroached she once again heaved herself and using her tail to pivot tried to roll seaward – again the waves and insufficient water depth foiled a mighty attempt on her part. Over the next hour I timed my urgent appeals for her to roll with wave sets that rushed larger quantities of sea landwards. On a few of these occasions she watched my hand movements and seemed to note my barked appeals and tried to roll. Finally, with all factors being favourable, the whale rolled over inching closer to deeper water and out of the sand trough created by her body. Huge amounts of energy were expended by these actions with her breathing and sighing becoming more evident.

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At this time I tried to communicate calmly anticipating her increasing anxiety at each failed attempt. On two occasions the whale half rolled with her blow-hole obstructed, then panicking allowed the waves to roll her back to her original position with no advance seaward. This became very frustrating for her as the hours wore on. By 15h20 I noted the desperation in her eyes. The tide was up and the water was still not deep enough to allow her to free herself. Sadly, around 15h40 I saw her look across at me with a plea that I knew could not be fulfilled. No amount of human power would be able to assist her with the rough sea conditions and danger posed to any physical human intervention.

I said good-bye with tears in my eyes, walked back to the beach to my wife Mary and departed with a heavy heart. She died during the night, possibly from exhaustion or organ failure from being trapped for so long. I will remember the encounter to my dying day.

Siani and Ilse are thanked for their efforts to assist the whale.

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About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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