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Out Of The Blue

Out Of The Blue

A moving account of two marine mammal researchers’ experience with a young blue whale stranded in shallow waters near Alibaug, Maharashtra.

The mother blue whale surfaces briefly. Photo: The Konkan Cetacean Research Team/The GoI-GEF-UNDP Sindhudurg Cetacean Project.

“Whale!” our boatman screamed, pointing at the horizon. We squinted at the hazy blow a few kilometres away trying to figure out if the summer heat was playing with our minds after 10 hours on water.

Our team (The Konkan Cetacean Research Team) was conducting boat-based surveys to assess the population of inshore marine mammals in the waters off the Sindhudurg coast, when we sighted a pair of blue whales Balaenoptera musculus, the largest animal that has ever lived on Earth. It was, in fact, a mother-calf pair, we were to find out later as cetacean experts examined our pictures and informed us. The calf was on its side, its large flipper out of the water at a jaunty angle, suckling from its mom. For our entire team, this was our first whale. We were elated to glimpse these majestic giants of the sea, right in our backyard, with a healthy feeding calf no less.

So touching was this sight, that our usually stoic boatman was on the roof rails, looking for a sign of the whales as we all waited for them to surface. He would smile with child-like glee as he saw them emerge, barely breaking the surface despite their enormous bulk. This was followed by the most exciting sampling season yet for our team. We sighted Bryde’s whales Balaenoptera edeni (Pronounced Broody’s), in the same area on six occasions soon after, as if the blue whales had been the harbingers of their kind, bringing with them their lesser kin.

We returned home on a high. WHALES! As we sat, processing and analysing data, on the evening of June 24,  just days after our first whale sighting, the phone rang ominously. A family friend, Satish Kolvankar was on the line from Revdanda, near Alibaug, to inform us about a stranded whale in the shallows. From the pictures, we identified it as a young blue whale.

Despite the social media outrage, the efforts of the authorities, the local fishermen and the volunteers from the local disaster management squads to save this stranded, young blue whale were commendable. Photo: The Konkan Cetacean Research Team/The GoI-GEF-UNDP Sindhudurg Cetacean Project.

We galvanised into action, hoping we could help, and contacted international experts for advice, including Dr Robert Brownell and Anouk Illangakoon, people who have spent their entire lives studying these marine giants. The feedback we received from them was practical but heart breaking. The whale, they said, was doomed the minute it landed ashore. A large baleen whale was not designed to be on land. Millennia of adaption to the seas have made them unable to support their enormous bulk ashore. Out of the buoyant waters, the animal slowly and painfully crushes itself to death. The organs haemorrhage and the lungs have to work harder and harder as they collapse. In this case, the animal also had a multitude of other factors working against it.

Adult blue whales reach over 30 meters in length and can weigh over 180 tonnes. They are born at about 7 metres in length, reaching up to 14 metres within their first year, feeding on their mother’s rich milk. The stranded animal, a female blue whale, was just about 13 meters long. She was a suckling calf! An animal this young, even if released, had no chance of survival without her mother. The coastline that she was unfortunately stranded upon has a gentle slope with a soft muddy substrate that would have made re-floating her impossible and the monsoon winds blowing coastward with stormy seas exacerbated the situation. In addition, the young whale was emaciated and by the end of the ordeal, immensely tired.  As Robert Baldwin put it, “I strongly suspect that the whale will die, not because of your lack of ability or effort, but because of the great difficulty involved in trying to save it.”

All this, however, did not stop the thirty odd people from the nearby villages and the officials from the Forest department and the Collectors office from making a valiant effort to push the leviathan back to sea. The rescuers were in a meter and half of water, for 20 hours, working against the raging monsoon seas, risking being swept away or even being hit by a 2.6 meter tail fluke as the animal thrashed in the shallows. The rescuers did not use any mechanical devices or ropes to try and move the whale, as this would probably just have hastened its preeminent demise. They went beyond the call of duty to try and save this little whale. Their courage and sheer perseverance was nothing short of heroic. These fishermen later told us that the ‘Dev Maasa’ (The Divine Piscean) as they have known the whale for generations, is the herald of good catch and good fortune and this was the least they could do for it.

This whale, unfortunately, drew its last excruciating breath on the early morning of June 25. It had to be buried on the beach and required three heavy earthmovers even to drag the carcass ashore. As the animal was being laid to rest, fishers gathered to pay their respects and offered flowers and a prayer. It was a touching experience to watch them mourn its death as their own.

Bystanders watch the rescue efforts. Photo: The Konkan Cetacean Research Team/The GoI-GEF-UNDP Sindhudurg Cetacean Project.

There was a lot of outrage on social media about how poorly this situation was handled by authorities. Despite no clear-cut protocols, working against the elements, and in absence of safety measures and equipment, the effort of the authorities, the local fishermen and the volunteers from the local disaster management squads was commendable. Observing these workings first hand in the field, we were able to comprehend the complexities of handling situations like these. Matters like controlling the ever-swelling crowd was not mentioned in any of the manuals we referred, but well, it’s something we learnt for future reference after bystanders climbed atop the whale for a picture. We understand these people were merely overwhelmed with this brobdingnagian being from the deep and this was probably just a manifestation of their curiosity rather than an act of malice. In such cases, we made a note; we need more help from the local police force to maintain order. This incidence has also led us to work in coordination with the authorities in developing a protocol for cetacean strandings and mortalities along the Maharashtra coast. Silver linings they say.

As to what led the calf to strand – we can only guess. It had no external injuries. Got separated from its mother? Could not manage the rough weather in its emaciated state? Already had some kind of disease it was trying to cope with? Reasons could be many. As our team drove back to Mumbai, an uncomfortable silence floated in the car, we were all thinking it, but no one said it out aloud, “Did we just see that calf (our calf) again?“ We don’t want to find out either way. We hope in the years to come large cetacean research in our waters brings to light both knowledge and awareness, for the sake of our baby whale.

Author: Mihir Sule and Ketki Jog

The work of the Konkan Cetacean Research Team is made possible under sanction from the GoI-GEF-UNDP Sindhudurg Project.

 
 
 

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