[MARMAM] Update on stranding of pilot whales in Utila, Honduras

Edita Magileviciute edita at utilaecology.org
Mon Oct 27 02:47:04 PDT 2008

Details of Short-Finned Pilot Whales found beached at New Airport Beach,
Utila – 6 October 2008

The following information was collated by staff and volunteers of the
Utila Centre for Marine Ecology.
In the early hours of October 6th, 5 pilot whales were found stranded on
the shores of Utila, near the new airport. All of the whales were dead
when found.  It is not known why pods of whales do this, but pilot
whales are known to strand more often than most others.

The whales were all facing the ocean and appeared to have regurgitated
large chunks of squid which could be found in abundance around the area
where the whales were. Of the five, only the largest was male and it was
he who appeared to show any outward sign of illness or disease. His body
was covered in white lesions that looked like they could have been some
kind of skin infection, virus or disease. Scientists and volunteers from
the Utila Centre for Marine Ecology took photos of the abrasions and
have since sent them off to some of Europe’s leading Marine Mammal
pathologists and posted them on various on line forums in hopes that
someone will be able to identify the illness in question.  DNA and
blubber samples were taken by the Utila Whale Shark Research Project and
those samples will be taken to be tested in the states.

The day after the stranding, staff from the Iguana Station, the Whale
Shark Oceanic Research Centre and the Environmental Officer of the
Municipality attempted to cut open one of the whales to identify if
there had been any plausible cause of death visible from the stomach
contents. They found squid and a small piece of plastic. Because the
corpses had already been on the beach over 24 hours when they cut the
animal open, they did not take any samples and just made observations.
The team stripped the carcass of as much flesh as possible and buried
the bones on the one animal.

A larger lesson and an urgent need for a coordinated response.

With no current protocol nor legislation in place for such events the
Utila Centre for Marine Ecology had no authority to prevent the
following chain of events from happening and as an organization is
frustrated both by the lack of respect for these animals and for any
relevant response at a local or national level. There is an urgent need
for a central organization to coordinate stranding events and for a
chain of data collection, use and dissemination to be clearly thought
Below are examples of events that followed the stranding that UCME was
powerless to intercede with:
As there was no one directly in control of the stranding, people were
free to do as they wished many people came out to the beach to see the
whales and some individuals were seen cutting the teeth out from the
whales’ mouths.; touching, mounting and even carving their names into
the whales.

An additional whale was cut open by a resident who wanted to collect the
skull of the animal. He found an almost intact squid that was about 2
feet in length and barely chewed at all in the mouth of the animal and
more squid in the stomach. He cut off the head and now has it submerged
at his dock until the decomposition is complete after which point he
will add it to his personal collection of skulls. The rest of the open
carcass was left on the beach.

Of the 3 remaining whales, 2 were towed out to sea by one of the local
dive shops and tied to a mooring buoy. The idea was that one would be
picked up by Anthony’s Key Resort on the neighbouring island of Roatán
and the other would be sunk a local dive site as an attraction for

Efforts were made by the Municipality’s Environmental Officer to have one
of the whales picked up by the staff of Anthony’s Key Resort to be
examined and eventually to have the skeleton put on display at their
Roatan Institute of Marine Science, but they were not able to get a boat
over to pick one up.

The whale that was to be sunk was weighted down with cinder blocks but
the whale’s body would not sink. Staff from a local dive shop thinking
it could be due to decomposition gases decided to shoot the carcass in
an attempt to release the gases but to no avail. Eventually, the corpse
did sink to the bottom and shortly there after efforts were made to
remove the cinder blocks and lay the whale out in a sandy patch where it
would continue to decompose until there was only a skeleton left.

Finally, the remaining carcasses; one whole, one decapitated were cleaned
of their flesh by a team of experts from the Museum of Natural History
in Tegucigalpa.  The skeletons of some of the whales will hopefully be
preserved so that they can be put on display in Utila and Tegucigalpa.

A decree was released by the Municipality Environmental Officer
proclaiming that the buried carcasses were the property of the
Municipality and that they would be in the control of The Iguana Station
until they are ready to be reassembled.

Due to the lack of communication, collaboration and protocol throughout
this event, it has been suggested by all of the organizations involved
that a proper protocol and procedure be laid out for the future clearly
stating who will be in charge of handling further strandings in Utila
and what should be done in that case.

Utila Centre for marine Ecology currently collects cetacean distribution
and behavioral data from direct observation and through sightings
reported by fishermen and dive shops. There is an urgent need for a
Honduran Cetacean Unit which UCME is happy to spearhead in support of
the local authorities, but currently lacks the funding for such an
initiative. Island wide cetacean education is also a high priority.

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