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Bottlenose dolphins © Christopher Swann

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Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Gulf of California. The tail of a sperm whale.

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A dolphin plays in front of the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay

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An orca named 'Hulk' off Caithness, Scotland

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Minke whale - V Mignon

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Sponging dolphin in Shark Bay

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A sad day on the beach

It was with some trepidation that I offered my help to Nick Davison from SMASS (Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme) on the morning of Monday 8th September when he called to ask for some assistance from WDC in a Minke whale post mortem at Whitehills (around 20 miles along the coast from my usual place of work, The Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay).

Most people would be interested in finding out what caused one of our beautiful ocean giants to strand and die and to find out if it was a natural death or perhaps due to some human influence. I was curious to attend having never been to a post mortem before and I was happy to offer help wherever needed, but my curiosity was also tinged with sadness for the beautiful, 8.3m, female Minke and the tragic end that she met.

Upon arrival we could see wounds on her underside, suggesting that she had live stranded at some point, causing damage while struggling to get back in the water.

Nick got to work straight away and addressed a protruding mass in her throat, which revealed itself as a large abscess. This is speculated to have been the reason why our Minke ended up on the beach rather than out in the open sea where she belongs. I am no scientist or veterinarian, however I know that infection on that scale is a very bad thing. We are still awaiting confirmation on the results of the samples taken from the necropsy, but the cause of her death seems highly likely to have been due to the abscess which was so prominent in the throat area.

The hardest part of the day came when we discovered that she was pregnant, which hit all of us on the beach very hard. It was entirely unexpected and made what was already a tragic event, doubly tragic as this was not just the loss of one life but two.

I left at 5:30pm, after almost four hours on the beach feeling totally exhausted and drained, both mentally and physically. It’s good news to be almost certain that this was not a loss of a Minke due to human contribution, but at the same time it was a very sad way to spend an afternoon and I have to give credit to Nick from SMASS who frequently attends strandings all over Scotland, as his job and his goal is to find out as much as possible about stranded cetaceans with the hopes of contributing towards protecting and helping them in any way that we can.

On a side note, I was delighted by a brief, but definite appearance of a juvenile Minke whale leaping and breaching, around 1.5km out from Spey Bay on Sunday (14th September). This is our first Minke sighting from The Scottish Dolphin Centre in two years. This whale looked in great shape and high spirits as he repeatedly lunged from the water, making splashes so big you couldn’t miss them from the shore. It was almost as if he was celebrating just being alive and free!

About George Berry

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