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Risso's dolphin at surface

My lucky number – 13 years studying amazing Risso’s dolphins

Everything we learn about the Risso's dolphins off the coast of Scotland amazes us and...
Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

What have dead whales ever done for us?

When dead whales wash up on dry land they provide a vital food source for...
Risso's dolphin © Andy Knight

We’re getting to know Risso’s dolphins in Scotland so we can protect them

Citizen scientists in Scotland are helping us better understand Risso's dolphins by sending us their...
Pilot whales pooing © Christopher Swann

Talking crap and carcasses to protect our planet

We know we need to save the whale to save the world because they are...
Fin whale (balaenoptera physalus) Three fin whales Gulf of California.

Speaking truth to power – my week giving whales a voice

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting is where governments come together to make decisions about whaling...

Why do whales and dolphins strand on beaches?

People often ask me 'why' whales and dolphins do one thing or another.  I'm a...
A spinner dolphin leaping © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

Head in a spin – my incredible spinner dolphin encounter

Sri Lanka is home to at least 30 species of whales and dolphins, from the...
Orca (ID171) breaches off the coast of Scotland © Steve Truluck.

Watching whales and dolphins in the wild can be life changing

Whales and dolphins are too intelligent, too large and too mobile to ever thrive in...

The Prince of Totoya is (finally) on his way south

Last October I got a call from the Chief of Totoya Island (Roko Sau) letting me know that a whale had gotten stuck inside a lagoon near his island. I’d never been to the Lau Islands before yet had always heard lovely things about the clear waters and teeming marine life of this remote island group. Roko Sau (who also works for the Pacific Blue Foundation) was enthusiastic and managed to charm us a ride on a Super yacht thanks also to the support of Yacht Help Fiji. After a 15 hour ride I set my eyes on the stunning sight of beautiful and majestic Totoya. As we moved into the interior of the horse-shoe shaped island I scanned intently for any sign of the whale. Finally there was a blow but my heart sank as I realized that the whale was stuck inside a very small and shallow lagoon. We jumped into a skiff with the Super yacht crew and moved through the narrow S-shaped channel into the lagoon. I then saw the animal up close for the first time and confirmed it was a male, subadult humpback whale. He was in good condition … except of course for his current location within Vakamatuku lagoon. The lagoon had a maximum depth of around 16m and was just over 50m in diameter. The channel he had to exit through was only 6m deep, 10m wide and about 10m long. I watched him as he unknowingly swam past the small entrance. I felt anxious about his fate as it was the time of year when humpback whales should be beginning their southward migration to Antarctica in order to feed. Any energy he spent swimming around this lagoon would take away from the reserves needed for the 6-8 week swim south.

Over the course of the next week we tried a number of different strategies to move the whale (named by the villagers the ‘Prince of Totoya’) out of the lagoon. Firstly we used several small boats to try and slowly drive him into deeper waters. However whenever he got close to the entrance instead of investigating the coral reef to find the small channel he dove down and surfaced behind us. On another day we constructed a ‘fence’ made of vines and coconut leaves that we attempted to hang down into the ocean as a way of creating a visual barrier for the Prince. The villagers made a great effort to construct this underwater wall … but when it was put in the water it was difficult to make it sink straight down as we’d hoped. Adding to this concern were the additional boats needed to coordinate the movement of the fence. The whale seemed a little nervous and to our disappointment he again dove under our boats when we attempted to move him towards the opening. We made attempts on several other days but had no luck. We used our spare time on the island to visit primary schools, talk to villagers and community members, and speak with the elders. In such a small place as Totoya the visit of the whale was a big event and I took heart in seeing the interest and admiration for the animal. However my heart also grew heavier every day as I knew that if the whale didn’t move out of the lagoon he would not survive. I departed Totoya feeling disappointed and as the year moved towards Christmas I found myself often wondering about the whale in Totoya.

And then … the New Year brought good news. Roko Sau visited Totoya for the festive season and so went to see the Prince again. Roko Sau told me he was surprised to see quite a striking change in the animal – his black shiny skin had turned whitish-grey in parts and he’d lost condition in his once robust body. In addition, the Roko noted some scratches near both his tail and head – likely from meeting the coral reef as he tried to find a way out. Roko Sau told me he spoke softly to the whale and told him to leave and join his friends. On the following day he did just that! And, as the whale moved towards the open ocean he made several exuberant breaches just near Tovu village as if to say goodbye. I would like to thank my wonderful hosts in Totoya for making me feel so welcome – and also extend my gratitude to the team that travelled with me including Major, Joe, Mosese, and Anare. Finally, I would especially like to extend my appreciation to Roko Sau for inviting me to spend some time in unforgettable Totoya.

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.