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When a dead whale washed ashore

By Rubina Jabbar
Karachi's entertainment-starved public--who were not bothered about the issue of its origins--thronged to the beach to see the giant creature.

The landing of a dead whale on Clifton beach a few days ago inviting curiosity as well as controversy, leaving the experts undecided about which family of whale it belonged to--Humpback or Fin whale?

But the entertainment-starved public--who were not bothered with the issue of its origin--thronged to the beach to see the giant creature.

The Sindh Wildlife Department, which took the possession of the dead creature and conducted its dissection, declared it was a Fin Whale, while the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Pakistan in the light of their research and examination insisted on calling it a Humpback.

"About 14-35 grooves are usually found in Humpbacks and the dead whale had 22 grooves on the throat and chest," says Dr. Ejaz Ahmed, deputy director general of WWF-Pakistan, in support of their point of view.

According to his findings, a Humpback whale grows to about 52 feet in length ; while the washed up whale at Clifton was 48 feet in body length and its flippers measured about 14 feet.

Dr. Ahmed states that Humpback is a baleen whale that does not contain tooth, rather filters feeder.

According to a study, Humpbacks have hundreds of rigid strips made up of material similar to human fingernails which hang down from the upper jaw all around the mouth. These strips called 'baleen' fuse into wider plates which may reach up to three feet in length.

"The ends of baleen are bristly and frayed and intertwined with the edges of adjacent plates to form a filtering system."

"Humpbacks have a cylinder shape flipper extending 50 feet and the dead whale had 48 feet long flipper. They can consume nearly a ton of food in a day's time," informs Dr. Ahmed.

But Fahmida Firdous, project officer, Marine Turtle Project of Sindh Wildlife Department, who supervised the seven-day dissection operation executed by about 11 professional butchers and their helpers at the Clifton beach, has said it was a Fin Whale.

"We do not have whale experts with us but we are sure it was a male Fin Whale. According to SWD total length of the dead whale, which weighed around 10 tons, was 56 feet. This specie usually attains a length of 69 feet and weighs over 70 tons, and the recorded maximum length is 88 feet," she says.

Dr. Quddusi Kazmi, director, Marine Reference Collection and Reference Center, University of Karachi, who visited the site to examine the deep-water creature, has said both point of views should be respected.

"The size of flipper and number of grooves on throat and chest suggested it was a Humpback. Fin whales have flippers relatively shorter in size," says Dr. Kazmi.

"On the basis of apparent features like fins, snout and crest we are determined it's a Fin Whale. But no matter whether you call it Fin or Humpback it's a whale," comments SWD Conservator Munir Awan commented.

Well, both WWF-Pakistan and SWD have agreed that the whale washed ashore eight kilometers of McDonalds restaurant on Clifton beach was a male.

"The dead whale sank into sand was found lying upside down due to which its identification characteristics had perished," says Dr. Kazmi

According to Fahmida, "a Fin Whale was found lying on rocky beach at Gaddani Beach in May 1995. I attempted to have a closer view of its mouth to determine its gender but the foul smell of the decomposed body did not allow that and left me nauseous." Owning to foul smell of the stinking body many butchers had refused to do the job and they hired professionals on a charge of Rs. 500 and 300 daily to remove the flesh skillfully and it took them a whole week to finish the job and transporting it into pieces to the SWD office.

"We retrieved some meat, waste matter, intestines for examination and buried the unwanted things in the sand off the sea. We invited different concerned departments to join us but none of them paid heed."

"Articulation of bones would take two months. Once the bones are dried they would be dipped into chemical and then articulated into skeleton," informs Fahmida

About the causes of death Quddusi says, "collision with a ship could have been the most likely cause of death as the front fin of the dead whale was broken.

"Humpbacks found in deep water in Arabian Sea usually travel in schools, so it might have stranded from the school and hit by some passing ship. Hunger, lack of food, injury, parasitic or any other disease are other likely causes of its death," adds Quddsia.

"Parasites could be external or internal but external parasites have remote possibilities because Humpbacks' blubber or fat layer is 20cm thick due to which penetration is not easy," she further informs.

"Humpbacks breathe through a double blow-hole located on top of their heads. Breathing is voluntarily and the nasal plugs found in the blow-holes remain closed until forced open by respiratory contractions. Internal parasites could have shrunk the nasal passage causing difficulty in breathing and leading to its death," suggests Fahmida.

According to Fahmida, the cause of death of the whale which might have died a month before it was found ashore seemed to be natural; or some bullet could also have hit it.

"The stranded whale has no marks of injury. So, possibly it might have died naturally. Although the life span of a Humpback whale is 45-50 years," observes WWF.

Mohammad Ali Shah, chairman, Fisher Folk Forum Pakistan (FFP) perceives the pollution caused by oil tankers as the cause of its death.

There is evidence of numerous sightings and stranding of whales along the Karachi coast in the past.

"Whale is called 'weesar' in local language which means it had been frequenting our coast due to which locals gave it this name," explains Shah.

"We are interested in the display of its skeleton, different organisations, including the Karachi Zoo, showed interest in retaining its skeleton. But when we have provisions to do that why shouldn't we display it. We would lend it for some days to the zoo so that a large number of people could view it," says Munir.

Dr. Ahmed appreciating the SWD has said, "In spite of lack of resources, trained staff, expertise and the absence of previous practices of handling such cases, they dealt with the case properly."

Whales are not fish. They are cetaceans, warm-blooded marine mammals which breathe air and nurse their young. Unlike fish, a whale swims by moving its flukes (tail) up and down.

The blue whale is the largest known animal ever to have lived on sea or land. Individuals can reach more than 110 feet and weigh nearly 200 tons, more than the weight of 50n adult elephants.

Humpback, the fifth largest of the great whales is an endangered specie. The name Humpback describes the motion it makes as it arches its back out of the water in preparation for a drive. It has a stout body and very long flippers. The head is rounded and bulky.

It is usually observed in four different colour schemes, ranging from white to gray to black to mottled. Their undersides are pale to white.

Humpbacks are carnivores and filter feeder that filter feed tiny crustaceans and small fish. They migrate to breed in tropical waters and much shallow seas.

Fin whales, also an endangered specie, are brownish grey above and white below. The colour pattern is asymmetrical: the lower jaw is white on the right side and dark on the left. Fin whales are second only to blue whales in length but are more slightly built. The dorsal fin is strongly curved and is about 60cm high. Fin whales have an average of 85 throat grooves that extend to the navel. Each side of the upper jaw bears 350-400 baleen plates. At physical maturity males and females average 19 and 20 meters in length, respectively.

It is presumed that a population of Humpbacks breed off the coast of Oman, and possibly the stranded whale came from this population.

A Humpback whale was previously stranded near Port Qasim in 1984, and later another individual was found stranded at Sandspit in late '80s.

The skeleton of this specimen has been articulated at the Naval Museum in Karachi for display.




  • The News on Sunday, The News International (www.jang.com.pk)

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