THE LARGEST FISH that 60-year-old Sitaladevi Sonawane, a fish monger, had ever seen had been one-and-a-half-foot long, a baby shark that she had bought at Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks some years ago. When she heard that a 40-foot long whale had washed ashore near Juhu Beach, Sitaladevi didn’t have to think twice. Like all the other fishermen and women who live at Koliwada in Mahim, she too rushed there.
She did not really know what a whale was, but her son had measured the approximate length of the ‘fish’ and that had given them some inkling of the scale of the thing that had washed ashore. A small contingent went in autorickshaws, mobikes and cycles to see it with their own eyes. “I could not believe what I saw. On the beach was such a huge fish lying dead. I was scared looking at it,” says Sitaladevi.
On 28 January this year, a few lifeguards at Juhu Beach were winding up for the night when they noticed a huge object silhouetted in black against the
night bobbing up and down in the sea before them. They went closer to the waters to investigate and saw that the object was headed to the shore. “It was a fish, a huge fish. We could not tell how big it was. We did not know it was a whale. Only after we looked up the internet did we realise what it was,” says Rahul Bhale of the Juhu Lifeguards Association. It was actually a male Bryde’s whale, and, when weighed, clocked 20 tonnes.
By morning, word of the beached whale had spread like wildfire and people started streaming in take a look at the carcass. The crowd grew so large that more than 20 policemen were deployed to manage it. Standing on her toes for a better look, the five-foot tall Sitaladevi felt herself shaking at the size of the carcass. “O devaa, this is what is under the sea and our children go to fish in there. Since that day I worry every time my son goes into the sea,” she says. Her sons, however, were not that worried. The took selfies near the dead whale in spite of the overpowering stench.
It took two big cranes and ropes to lift the carcass for disposal. According to Makarand Ghodke, assistant conservator of forests, who supervised the operation, the tissues have been taken for genetic sampling. “The whale was buried at Juhu Beach itself,” says Ghodke.
ONLY A FEW days before Mumbaikars had woken up to the whale at Juhu, over 100 short-finned pilot whales were found stranded along a 15-km stretch of the Manapad beach in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. About 60 of them had died and the rest were too disoriented to return to the sea on their own. The fishermen struggled for hours to push them safely back into the waters.
In February, a Blue Whale, also 40 feet in size, was found stranded on the beach at Dapoli on the Konkan Coast. Fishermen and officials of the Fisheries Department pushed it into the waters and guided it into the deeper sea with the help of boats.
Since last June, when a 44-foot long Blue Whale washed ashore near Revdanda on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra, there have been numerous instances of whales being beached along the country’s western shores. The stranding of dolphins is common along this coastline, but the beaching of whales is a puzzle to marine biologists.
Most whales are washed ashore in a highly putrefied condition and very little is discernible about their cause of death. – Mihir Sule, marine biologist
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These beached whales are usually Blue or Bryde’s. The latter is found in the warmer waters of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. It is known as a tropical whale. According to marine biologist Mihir Sule, who has been studying small cetaceans like dolphins and porpoises in the Sindhudurg waters on the Konkan coast, there have been sightings of whales in the deep waters of the Arabian Sea in the past few years but these have been chance observations. The study of large marine mammals is still in a nascent stage in India and there is not much information available on whales in the country’s waters. “It is very difficult to comment on why this is happening. In most cases, they are washed ashore in a highly putrefied condition and very little is discernible even from a detailed examination of the carcasses. Also, if it is possible to understand the cause of death, there is the further complication of separating the proximate and ultimate causes,” says Sule.
If a whale gets stranded in the shallows, for example, the proximate cause of death would be the cutting off of blood supply to its organs, with its life lost finally to the complications that follow. “This may be possibly understood from a necropsy,” says Sule, “but the ultimate cause of death may be some other factor like ill health, pollutants, noise or predators that drove the whale to the shallows. This ultimate cause of death needs to be mitigated and is very difficult to glean. This is the case not just in the Indian context, but also globally.”
Conducting necropsies on large whales is a highly specialised skill. According to Sule, only a handful of individuals the world over may have the expertise and experience to deal with a carcass as big as the 44-foot Blue Whale that washed ashore at Revdanda. In tropical climates like Mumbai, necropsies become particularly difficult because the timeframe for such an undertaking is much shorter; decay sets in much faster, and the putrid smell makes it a daunting task to conduct a post-mortem.
The whales that were beached along the Mumbai and Konkan coast were disposed of without post-mortems on the carcasses because they were far too badly decomposed. The Mumbai whale’s post-mortem could not be done because the trailer used to transport its carcass became so heavy that it got stuck in the sand at the beach.
The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, which studies the population of whales in Indian waters, is trying to understand if the ones which are dying are migrants or residents of Indian waters. Marine biologist Kedar Gore says that these beachings are ample proof of the presence of whales along the west coast in the deep seas off Mumbai. “Now people can come to the west coast in Maharashtra to spot whales instead of going to Sri Lanka to look for them,” says Gore.
It was a huge fish. We could not tell how big it was. We did not know it was a whale. Only after we looked up the internet did we realise what it was Rahul Bhale, lifeguard, Juhu Beach
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Sule is of the opinion that not all whale strandings are reported, and because of this gap, there are no estimates that could permit the kind of data comparisons and projections needed to study the impact of these mortalities properly. Undersea activities like earthquakes or volcanoes could also make whales move towards coastal areas. Another plausible explanation could be that sea creatures such as sharks force whales to seek safety by swimming towards the coast, where they risk getting stuck in shallow waters.
Whales are classified into two broad categories: baleen and toothed. The former have a filter-feeder system to trap plankton and other small prey, while the latter have teeth. Toothed whales use echo-location, like bats; throwing sound waves through the water to determine the location, size, shape and texture of a prey, vessel or barrier. Baleen whales are better navigators and migrate over huge distances without going off-course by more than a single degree. Toothed whales, more than Baleen, are the ones that usually end up getting fatally stranded in shallow waters. The pilot whales that washed ashore at Tuticorin were toothed whales. What might have happened is the entire group followed a disoriented leader into shallow waters and got beached. In India, the first recorded beaching of short-finned pilot whales was in 1852 near Kolkata. In 1973, about 147 whales were stranded at Tuticorin. But those events were spaced out by several decades, unlike what is happening now.
The Maharashtra government plans to set up a rescue centre to house dolphins and whales that beach on the coast. Residents along the 720 km coastline of the state will be trained to monitor sightings and report such events. Maharashtra Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar has also directed his department to carry out a detailed survey of marine mammals. But until the mystery of why these whales have suddenly decided to find the Indian coast to die on is answered, more deaths will follow.