A Stranded Whale and a Missed Opportunity

A few days ago, I received a phone call from a colleague telling me that a “big dolphin” had been found dead on our neighbouring island Eydhafushi. People were getting ready to take the carcass to an uninhabited island next door to bury it on the beach – which meant that no time was to be wasted to get over there by boat and inspect the animal. As I was in the middle of meetings, I couldn’t leave straight away, but managed to get in touch with colleagues in the Marine Research Centre in Male’, who informed me about the details they would need about the stranded dolphin. After another hour of meetings, I could hop on a speedboat with a friend, enjoyed the sun and the flying fish the boat disturbed during its speedy trip, and already saw from afar that the animal had luckily not been buried yet.
When I arrived at Maadhoo, about 20 men from Eydhafushi were busy pulling the animal ashore using ropes and sticks. The skin on the back was already damaged and bleeding but otherwise the “big dolphin” seemed intact. And a big animal it was! With a length of 5.15 m and a circumference of 3.05 m, it was clearly not a dolphin, and a look into its mouth confirmed that it was not. It had only two tusk-like teeth in the lower jaw, as opposed to many teeth that dolphins have in both jaws, and was a member of the Beaked Whales! We are still not sure what species of Beaked Whale exactly we had in front of us but a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale seems like the most probable candidate, as it is common in the Maldives. I took some skin and blubber samples and froze them for further analysis by the Marine Research Centre team. Hopefully we will also be able to secure the skeleton in the future. As to the cause of death: I could not see any external injuries and found no items in its mouth, it may well have been a natural death at sea. Hopefully.

Interestingly, very little is known about these deep-diving, squid-eating whales. In retrospect, I am therefore upset with myself that I didn’t take the chance to cut the recently-dead animal open and inspect the stomach contents for food remains or parasites. It may have been a welcome bonus for biologists studying whales. However, since my visit to the carcass was a last-minute activity and I feared that the “dolphin” had already been buried, I guess I did not fully anticipate the opportunities. I have learned something and next time will be better prepared.

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