Last month’s news that a Sowerby's Beaked Whale had washed up at Thornham was the second recorded stranding of this species in as many years. Unfortunately, although alive when found, the animal had to be euthanased. The individual found stranded on Blakeney Point on 13th August 2009 was more fortunate, being rescued and helped back into the sea before being guided away from the shore. These were the second and third records of the species for Norfolk, following one at Happisburgh in 1952.
Sowerby’s Beaked Whale has one of the most northerly distributions of all of the beaked whales, occurring in the temperate North Atlantic, south to the Azores. Most reported strandings come from the coastlines of the North Sea, giving rise to the name ‘North Sea Beaked Whale’, which is sometimes used. The presence of this small whale in the North Sea is surprising given that this is a deep-water species, feeding on small fish and squid taken from depths of 400m or more. The relatively few live sightings come predominantly from the waters off NW Britain & Ireland, Iceland and the Faroes. Quite why so many strandings occur around North Sea coasts is unknown, but it may be linked to the whales becoming disoriented when they enter this relatively enclosed body of water. Although strandings have been reported in all months of the year, there is a peak in late summer/early autumn, matching the two recent Norfolk strandings, and perhaps suggesting that individuals are moving south across their range at this time.
The stranding of any whale is a sad event and seems to trigger a great deal of interest from the wider public. Perhaps it is because of the romantic image that we have of these leviathans, creatures so different from ourselves that they arouse interest and (in most quarters) respect. I remember the crowds that made the long walk out at Heacham to see a beached Sperm Whale in the early 1990s, and the look of wonder in the eyes of many of the children who had been taken to see the unfortunate creature. Despite our respect, and indeed the legal protection afforded to the whales and dolphins that use our waters, our activities still pose a threat to these graceful mammals and their environment. In addition to the obvious threats from oil and gas exploration, over-fishing and the deployment of military sonar, there is the insidious threat from the vast quantities of plastic that end up in our oceans. If we can build upon the general interest in our whales and dolphins then perhaps we can educate people and get them to think about their personal impact on the wider world.