Notes on the Humpback whale stranding at Yellowsands, East London

The museum was notified by Siani Tinley (East London Aquarium) about a large whale north of the Kwelera River (opposite the Yellowsands Resort) on Monday evening the 22nd August 2016.

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A site visit was undertaken on Tuesday 23/8/2016. The whale was identified and documented as an adult male humpback whale measuring 14 m. 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 (see the photo below), the papillae on the rostrum and the scalloped trailing edge of the flukes (tail). The animal was sexed by the bloated penis extending from the genital slit.


Museum scientist Kevin Cole pictured with the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, on the rocks at Yellowsands Resort


The left flipper of the humpback whale measured 2.97 m (posterior insert to tip) – note the serrations and nodules on the leading (front) edge


Note that the tail of the species has a serrated trailing edge as seen above. Each fluke measured 2.06 m


Illustrated is the dorsal surface of the upper jaw which has a series of raised papillae (tubercles) each supporting a tactile hair

Humpback whales are distributed worldwide. In the southern hemisphere populations migrate from the Antarctic to the African coastline beginning in May. They winter in the higher latitudes where mating and calving takes place. They move south again to feed at the Antarctic during the summer months. On average only 4-6 weeks may be spent on the breeding grounds. Humpback whales are highly vocal producing many sounds which are repeated in themes. These may last from 8-20 minutes. They are most vocal on the breeding grounds. These vocalisations have been interpreted as ‘songs’ and are mostly expressed by adult males.

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An unusual presentation with this humpback  stranding was the bloated tongue of the animal. This species has an evertable tongue (like a sock) which assists in gulping up a lot of water when feeding. When they die decomposition gassess can fill up the tongue as illustrated

Some mention should be made of the baleen plates. There are an average of 325 plates on both sides of the upper jaw only, the largest measuring 80-100 cm. Although mostly olive grey to black in colour some of the anterior plates may be white (as many as 38 in some instances).


A sample of baleen (3 plates) were taken for the museum collection


The number of throat grooves in the humpback whale are fewer than in other baleen whales (Blue, Fin and Sei) and are therefore further apart as seen in the photo. On average there are 29 throat grooves

Blubber samples were collected by museum scientist Kevin Cole and these will be sent to Dr Greg Hofmeyr (Curator of Marine Mammals at Bayworld) along with the baleen plates removed from the left series of plates. The cause of death to date is undetermined.

The dorsal fin measured 37 cm in height and extended horizontally for 130 cm as illustrated below.


Dorsal fin of the humpback whale. The other large species of whale in our waters, the southern Right whale, does not have a dorsal fin

No decision has been made to date by the authorities as what to do with the whale carcass. Jason and Aidan Leppan of Yellowsands Resort are thanked for assisting Kevin Cole with the documentation of the stranding.

About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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