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Latest News

50 tonne sperm whale stranding, Isle of Lewis

50 tonne sperm whale stranding, Isle of Lewis

On Tues December 7, the team were called by the SAC to the aid of a live sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), that had become stranded in Bhaltos Bay on the west coast of the outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis (see map, left). The adult whale was first seen swimming in circles in the Bay that afternoon at 14:30 hrs by local residents and reported to the coastguard. The CRRU veterinary team were subsequently alerted, but the last ferry to the island left at 15:30 so the next best option was to take the overnight freight ferry at 02:00 hrs. It is rare for a sperm whale to survive much longer than 12 hrs after stranding, but as individuals have been known to suffer for up to 36 hrs, we felt it was our duty to get there as soon as we could - even if there was little we might be able to do to help the animal.

After a duelling night in the ambulance, we eventually arrived on scene at 09:15 on Weds morning to be met by the local coastguard. Sadly, however, the whale had passed away the previous evening.

On close inspection, the stranded leviathan was found to be an adult male measuring a gargantuan 16 metres (54 ft) in length. Whilst no observable signs of external trauma were apparent, the animal had a blubber thickness of only 6 cm (less than half that expected in a healthy sperm whale of this size). And yet, there were fresh rake marks and sucker impressions left by its prey, the giant squid (Moroteuthis robusta), on the whales head -- the sperm whale is believed to consume up to 1 tonne of prey per day. Bob Reid of the SAC commented that these markings were perhaps the best he had ever seen, and clearly indicated to us that the whale had recently eaten. In addition, its 22 pairs of teeth were not worn away, as more typically seen in older individuals who are no longer able to feed for themselves, signifying that this whale had not stranded naturally with the debilitation of old age.

A healthy sperm whale of this size would be expected to weigh in the order of 45 to 50 tonnes, and this clearly presented a challenge for the authorities in its removal from the beach. Unfortunately, we could do little more on our trip than record a few observations and handful of measurements for the SAC and then just stand there on the remote, exposed Atlantic beach with a familiar mixture of wonderment and sadness of what had come to pass. The whole trip in fact had been a rather surreal experience, and one that left us all wondering just what we would have done from a veterinary perspective if the animal was still alive on our arrival.

It later emerged that this Lewis sperm whale was in fact the largest stranded individual that had ever been recorded for the species in Scottish waters. Upon its removal from the bay, it was found to weigh a massive 57 tonnes.

The CRRU would like to thank the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) and HM Coastguard for their collaboration, the local SSPCA, BDMLR medics on stand by should further assistance be needed, and the wonderful residents of Bhaltos Bay who took us in and warmed us up with that very much-appreciated cup of tea and biscuit next to the fire.

Footnote: Sperm whales are known to be very sociable cetaceans. This fact makes them prone to mass strandings, although in Scotland it is usually lone animals that become stranded and interestingly, where the sex has been confirmed, the vast majority have been found to be male. The reasoning behind this is most probably explained in terms of the social structure of the species. The fundamental social group is that of pregnant/nursing mothers, calves and immature animals, usually in numbers of between 20 and 25. Both sexes migrate in autumn and spring along regular routes, with whales in the North Atlantic taking a Southerly route past the Shetland Islands and Ireland. In autumn they move towards the equator, where large breeding harems form sometimes in groups of up to 80+ individuals. In spring, they move back towards the poles, with the males moving the furthest north. Females rarely venture above 40 degrees latitude, thus strandings in our region are much more likely to be of males, which are usually solitary. If mass strandings do occur, it is almost inevitably a bachelor group, as males that are too young to compete for females tend to aggregate in small pods around the polar zone.

To learn more about this largest member of the toothed whale family, see our sperm whale "fact file" HERE.

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