20-metre sperm whale found dead on Fujairah coast

Sperm whale sightings in the area are rare although they are known to swim deep in the waters of the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of the UAE.

Fujairah plans to exhibit the skeleton of the sperm whale. Courtesy Balazs Buzas / Al Mayya Sanctuary
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FUJAIRAH // Oil slicks and other environmental pollution could have helped to cause the death of a 20-metre sperm whale found off the coast of Fujairah, marine experts say.

The carcass was towed ashore by the port authority on Thursday. The whale was estimated to have died between three and five days earlier.

Sightings of sperm whales in the area are rare, although they are known to swim deep in the waters of the Indian Ocean, off the UAE’s east coast.

There were at least five earlier incidents in which oil slicks washed ashore on the east coast.

The authorities are investigating tankers thought to have released oil-laden ballast water in the area.

As the carcass is partially decomposed, the precise cause of the whale’s death is unclear.

“I doubt that any specific oil spill will have caused this mortality, although the possibility cannot be ruled out,” said Robert Baldwin, managing director of Five Oceans Environmental Services.

The company is working on a research project with port authorities in the area.

“The human activities that we know about, so far, that have caused sperm whales’ deaths in the Arabian region are mostly related to ship strikes [collisions between whales and vessels] and fisheries-related incidents,” Mr Baldwin said.

Dr Ada Natoli, founder of the UAE Dolphin Project initiative, said marine pollution was harmful to whales and dolphins.

“Oil spill definitely affect whales and dolphins but it will be difficult to link it directly to this,” she said.

Dr Natoli added that oil spills were damaging to the mammals’ immune system, thus increasing their risk of falling sick and hurting their reproductive capability.

She said a post-mortem examination of the sperm whale was needed to assess the cause of death.

Mohammed Al Afkham, director general of Fujairah Municipality, said a team used special equipment to tow the carcass without damaging it.

Scientists were collecting samples of the carcass and would use them to conduct research as part of the Fujairah Whale Research Project launched this year.

In 2012, a 13-metre sperm whale washed ashore. At the time, marine experts speculated that it might have been hit by an oil spill.

At the weekend, the 20-metre sperm whale was buried in a dry patch of land in Fujairah to allow it to decompose.

The municipality plans to display its skeleton to the public, although the decomposition process may last 18 months to two years.

“We are planning to set up a marine life museum to display rare marine creatures,” said Mr Al Afkham.

Mr Baldwin said almost nothing was known about the sperm whale population in the waters off Fujairah. He said scientists would use the samples of the carcass to examine the whale’s DNA, which might provide insights about the genetic make-up of sperm whales in the area.

“There is no doubt, however, that sperm whales occupy the deep waters off Fujairah and the new research project aims to find out more about them,” said Mr Baldwin.

“It will also help to devise ways to protect them from the risks posed by shipping traffic and fishing nets.

“The dead sperm whale provides good evidence that it is only a matter of time before live whales can also be found and studied, and provides further motivation for doing so.”

Scientists said live sperm whales had yet to be detected in the first few months of the project.

However, scientists have found and recorded several dolphin species, including bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, spinner dolphins, and two firsts for UAE waters – pantropical spotted dolphins and striped dolphins.