Five Whales Beached on Utila

November 1st, 2008
by Thomas Tomczyk


The five pilot whale cadavers at Utila's Airport Beach. (Photo: Alan Greensgill)

The five pilot whale cadavers at Utila's Airport Beach. (Photo: Alan Greensgill)

Five adult Short Finned Pilot whales washed out on the island’s New Airport beach and were found by locals on October 6. All cadavers, four female and one male, were facing towards the sea. Large chunks of what appeared to be regurgitated squid were on the beach around them. The biggest mammal, a 4.7 meter long male, showed signs of what could be sickness or injury. His body was filled with white lesions, possibly a skin infection, virus or disease.

Scientists and volunteers from the Utila Center for Marine Ecology took pictures of the whale which have since been sent off to some of the leading marine mammal pathologists in Europe in hopes of identifying the cause of death.

Other members of the local conservation community were also working to identify possible reasons for the stranding. DNA and blubber samples were taken by staff from the Utila Whale Shark Research Project which will be tested later this month in the US. Staff from the Iguana Station, the Whale Shark Oceanic Research Center and the Environmental Office of the Municipality attempted to complete a necropsy to identify if there had been any plausible cause of death visible from the stomach contents. They have also been working hard to ensure that the skeletons will be preserved for educational purposes.

Three of the carcasses have been buried for as long as six months, to be later brought out and reassembled for Natural History Museum in Tegucigalpa. Another two were towed out to sea where the carcasses became loose and drifted off. The other one was sunk near a Haliburton wreck dive site. “The whale was originally weighted down with cinder blocks, but would not sink because of all of the expanded gases in it. Shots were fired into it in an attempt to release the gases and help it to sink, but it took three days before it fell to the bottom,” wrote Heather Graham, of Utila Centre for Marine Ecology.

One other theory about the reason for the stranding is that an earthquake which occurred north of Utila on September 28 may have disoriented or otherwise hurt the whales. “I am now 100% certain that ambient pressure changes in the water above the epicenter of certain undersea earthquakes cause disabling barotrauma in these deep divers,” wrote Dave Williams, a whale expert who suspects that small air sacs surrounding the inner ears of the fish were ruptured, disabling their biosonar. Williams suspects that the rest of the pod is still moving with currents towards the Gulf of Mexico and other members of the pod may strand within the next few weeks. DNA samples taken of the five members could help in verifying that theory. [/private]

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