Two pygmy sperm whales (Kogia breviceps) strand at East London (South Africa)

pygmy sperm whale

Neil Schentke of Winterstrand discovered two rare whales of the same species stranded east of Winterstrand on the 30th October 2018. They have been identified as pygmy sperm whales (the larger of the two small sperm whales species). The stranding at Haga-Haga on the 13th October 2018 was the smaller dwarf sperm whale. The identification of these two pygmy sperm whales was confirmed by the shape and position of the dorsal fin – the hooked low-set dorsal fin was positioned behind the mid-back. The shape and number of teeth also assisted with the identification.

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The hooked low-set dorsal fin on the 2.15 m male pygmy sperm whale. Photo: Kevin Cole

The animals were almost equal in length when measured with the female being a few centimeters longer than the male at 2.2 m (the male measured 2.15 m).

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Illustrated is the broad, short flipper set high and far forward on the right side of the male pygmy sperm whale. Photo: Kevin Cole

There is a strange aspect to determining the sex in these cetaceans. Normally with male whales the genital slit and anus are further apart than for females, but with the dwarf and pygmy sperm whales the males have the genital slit almost at the middle of the belly – this differs from all other species of whale! This was noted during the investigation during the week.

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Note the genital slit on the male pygmy sperm whale situated almost central to the belly. Photo: Kevin Cole

Unfortunately the inclement weather conditions (very strong winds) did not allow for a necropsy to be performed on the stranded animals. The quick succession of three short-headed sperm whale strandings does pose a few questions and adds to the tally of five previous records for the year in our area and a greater number of strandings for the coast extending to Port Elizabeth.

Presently there is a great drive by the NGO Coastwatch KZN to have legislation amended with regard to off shore surveys for gas and oil and the drilling component that accompanies such activities. A petition in this regard has been circulated calling for action with regard to the following; ‘In South Africa, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for oil and petroleum exploration activities is no longer mandatory because Section 39 of the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act has been withdrawn. This effectively means the oil and gas industry polices and monitors itself.  Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) is applying for a reconnaissance permit for an area that extends from Mossel Bay to Richards Bay, 15 km from shore. This covers many environmentally sensitive areas, biologically important migration routes, and poses a risk to many species of whale and dolphin, fish and turtle, as well as to tourism and fisheries.’ This matter is also presently being debated by the Oceans not Oil coalition which has engaged the Petroleum Association of South Africa (PASA) to clarify how the Environmental Impact Assessment process is failing South Africans and the marine environment with regards to the oil and gas stream of Operation Phakisa.

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This stretch of coast has produced a number of strandings over the past few years

Pygmy sperm whales are scarcely seen at sea and most of what we know about them is from strandings. When stranded they may appear to be slightly shark-like owing to the shape of the tiny jaw and false gills behind the eyes. They can grow to a maximum length of 3.3 m and occur in tropical to temperate waters of the ocean worldwide. They have been known to dive to 800 m and with a dive lasting more than 18 minutes. It is believed they can live for as long as 22 years.

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East London Museum scientist Kevin Cole examines the 2.15 m male pygmy sperm whale. Note the almost shark-like bulbous appearance and teeth on the lower jaw only.

About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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