Veterinary experts from the Scottish Marine Stranding Scheme (SMASS) were called to conduct vital work in one of Europe’s largest sperm whale stranding incidents.

Twelve whales became stranded on Wadden Islands in the largest known mass stranding of sperm whales in the eastern North Sea region. Image © Steve Geelhoed.

Twelve whales became stranded on Wadden Islands, an archipelago off the coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, last week.

SMASS scientists, based at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), were requested to join Dutch and Belgian teams and spent several days supporting the Dutch-led investigation into the largest mass stranding of sperm whales in the eastern North Sea region.

Huge logistical undertaking

Postmortems and investigations were carried out on most of the stranded animals, with Lonneke IJsseldijk from Utrecht University leading the investigation of the six animals stranded in Dutch waters.

Vet Andrew Brownlow, who coordinated the SMASS operation, said: “This is the first sperm whale stranding investigated in any detail and pulling together a team to carry out the postmortems has been a huge logistical undertaking for IJsseldijk.

“Experts were called on from across Europe and, as a result, we were able to postmortem five out of six animals within 48 hours of them stranding. This enabled an unprecedented amount of detail to be gained which, in turn, helps our understanding of the processes involved in their demise.”

Risk of explosion

Andrew Brownlow
Vet Andrew Brownlow.

Dr Brownlow explained the importance of carrying out postmortems quickly.

He said: “Sperm whales are perhaps the most difficult of all marine species to examine, given their size; tough, fibrous blubber and the short time before they start to decompose as you can actually run the risk of exploding the carcase.

“Each animal probably weighed about 20,000kg and this requires heavy lifting machinery to even begin to examine the internal organs.

“To properly investigate this number of animals it requires significant experienced manpower deployed very quickly, so this was the reason SMASS were asked if we could help.

“The final results are pending and will be released in time; however, we have already been able to rule out many potential causes for the stranding. These animals were in good body condition, but in the process of stranding became crushed under their own weight, which sadly led to their death.

“We took samples that will be analysed and for their diet, life history and contaminant burden, which will also help us understand what may have happened to these whales.”

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