Friday, 10 March 2006

Ocean giant washed ashore

The dead sperm whale whose body was washed ashore at Scolt Head on 19th February has, understandably, attracted many people to view its carcass. At 50ft in length, the sheer size of such an animal is something to behold and even in death, there is a resonance that exists between ourselves and such giants of the ocean. I remember seeing my first stranded whale, also a sperm whale, that had been washed ashore at Heacham some ten or 15 years ago. I was not the only one on the beach, staring in awe at the great bulk, the square head and the low hump set high on the back in place of a fin. I was struck by the disproportionately small mouth and the row of conical teeth set in the lower jaw. It was on these teeth that sailors used to practise scrimshaw during long voyages ­– the sperm whale was one of the most heavily exploited species by the whaling industry. Although the upper jaw appears to lack any matching teeth, there are tiny vestigial teeth that rarely break through the gum.

There have been a number of sperm whales washed ashore on the Norfolk coast in recent years and, like these, the individual beached at Scolt Head is likely to have entered the southern North Sea by mistake, becoming disoriented and trapped. Sperm whales are a species of deep water, where they feed on squid, and so are most commonly reported from the areas of deep water that lie to the north and west of Britain and Ireland.  It is thought that a group of these whales may have entered the North Sea from more northern waters and this may explain why three other individuals have recently been washed ashore in Lincolnshire and Humberside. It is just possible that more may follow.

Of course, the sperm whale is not the only species of cetacean (whale or dolphin) to have been washed up on our shores. The Norfolk Mammal Database holds records for a range of other species including: minke whale, fin whale, false killer whale and northern bottlenose whale. The latter species is the one that caused quite a stir when an individual found itself in central London having swum up the River Thames. Fortunately, not all encounters with cetaceans involve animals that have become stranded. Harbour porpoises can be seen feeding close inshore off Sheringham, Waxham and Walcott. These small cetaceans rarely reach 6ft in length and feed in small pods, lured inshore by feeding opportunities. Encounters are usually brief and it tends to be birdwatchers scanning the sea for migrating seabirds that see the porpoises but if you have the patience it is well worth the effort.

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