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Large humpback whale beached at Strand beach

24 December 2015

The process of removing the remains of a humpback whale from Strand beach, Cape Town has been nearly completed, and the Department of Environmental Affairs, working with the City of Cape Town- has collected the necessary samples from the dead mammal.

The department received reports late afternoon on the 23rd of December that the large mammal was floating off Melkbaai beach near Strand Pavilion. The dead animal was washed onto rocks approximately 50m offshore.

A team of research technicians from the department's Oceans and Coasts branch were dispatched to the scene.

Based on preliminary and limited sampling done by DEA technicians, it appears the animal died of natural causes.

Inspection of the carcass by DEA technicians found no signs of entanglement, injury from other animals, and no obvious signs of a ship strike. However, small sharks (possibly cow sharks) have eaten sections of the caudal peduncle, or tail.

The department notes however that this conclusion is based on limited sampling, as the DEA team had a limited time window for autopsy sampling because of the wave and ocean conditions of the spring tide.

The surface of the whale was searched for parasites - and the parasite load was found to be low. Measurements were taken of key areas for condition.

"The sight of this majestic animal washing up on a beach distresses all of us, and I want to commend our teams for moving swiftly to investigate the possible cause of the beaching," said Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa.

Minister Molewa added that as part of the department's mandate, the team has also taken biological samples to assess for levels of pollution impact as well as for micro-plastic accumulation.

"The Department of Environmental Affairs is actively involved in the global research into the impact of micro-plastics on the marine environment, plastics do not break down for many years and can have potentially negative consequences for aquatic and marine ecosystems," said Molewa.

The animal was a mature adult female humpback whale 13.5m long, in a reasonably good body condition, with lots of blubber and fat on the body.

The mammary gland was assessed to be resting, suggesting that this female was not actively nursing a calf.

Considering that the largest female humpback whale ever seen in the world was 15.2m m, it should be noted that this was an old animal.

According to scientists from the department's Oceans and Coasts branch, the presence of a mature whale in South African waters this late into the summer season, is a rarity.

Barring a few juveniles, all humpback whales have already left to undertake their southern migration to Antarctica.

The Oceans and Coasts team also took photographs of the underside of the fluke to be referenced against the South African Whale Photo-Identification Catalogue. The Department assists in the maintenance and coordination of this catalogue with has contributions from various research and monitoring agencies.

Flukes have markings unique to each individual whale, like fingerprints, and this matching identification technique assists departmental researchers with determining whether the whale has been spotted in South African waters previously. 

Biological tissue samples were also collected for DNA samples that will be added to an international genetic catalogue. The Department collects whale samples whenever possible. This genetic information is then submitted to a worldwide catalogue that builds information on the animals that travel over very large areas of the ocean.

"As the third most mega-diverse country in the world, there are more than 11 000 species in South African waters, which is 15% of global species. Our sampling of this animal will add to South Africa's burgeoning knowledge of the rich biodiversity of our oceans," said Minister Molewa.

The Department of Environmental Affairs is currently coordinating a catalogue of all South Africa's species for the purposes of research, monitoring and the maintenance of the country's genetic resources. 


Note to editors:

The removal of dead marine animals is a municipal function, in this instance falling within the jurisdiction of the City of Cape Town.  

For media queries contact:

Zolile Nqayi
Cell: 082 898 6483