Whales washing up along Cape coast

Thousands of humpbacks are on their way to Antarctic feeding ground

A humpback whale washed onto the beach near Strandfontein in Cape Town on Saturday.
A humpback whale washed onto the beach near Strandfontein in Cape Town on Saturday.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER

Three humpback whales have washed up on Cape beaches in the past month, the time of year when thousands of humpbacks migrate past SA to their summer feeding ground of Antarctica.

“It is common to see stranding when huge numbers are passing the coast of SA now on their way to Antarctica,” Dr Els Vermeulen, research manager of the Mammal Research Institute’s whale unit at the University of Pretoria, said on Tuesday.

Efforts continue today to move a whale carcass off a Cape Town Beach.

“If we don’t see an external cause of death then it is difficult to determine why the whales have died. We would need a full pathological report to know. It could be age, it could be health issues,” she said.

The stranding of the endangered Bryde’s whale would be a greater concern, she warned.

On Saturday an adult humpback washed up at Strandfontein beach in Cape Town and the carcass was removed.

On September 30 a juvenile humpback washed ashore off East London, near Bonza Bay. Only four days later, on October 4, another adult weighing about 30 tonnes was stranded in East London, on the Nahoon side of Bonza Bay. Both of the carcasses are still rotting on the beaches.

East London Museum scientist Kevin Cole said another 13.7-metre humpback washed up dead, just east of East London at Haga Haga, on July 24 before the recent strandings.

“It looked as though it had a ship strike, badly injuring the left flank, and the flipper was dislocated,” he said — sounding the alarm on increasing ship traffic close to the shores of the Eastern Cape.

“We have had a number of complaints about ships close to shore this year,” he said, explaining that ships could be trying to avoid high seas and storm surges associated with climate change.

Despite the human threats to their safety, the humpback population is thriving off SA’s coast, with super pods being spotted in November off the West Coast.

“The humpback populations have increased almost back to pre-whaling levels,” said Vermeulen, noting that with bigger numbers, there could be more whales washing up.

One of the humpback whales that washed ashore in the Eastern Cape.
One of the humpback whales that washed ashore in the Eastern Cape.
Image: GAIL KIRCHMANN

“It would be very different if these were Bryde’s whales. We would be more concerned. They are endangered with a small population and resident whales, which come to the coast with the sardine run.”

This is the season that southern right whales breed off SA, arriving about July and staying until October or early November, before departing to their feeding grounds.

Typically, humpbacks migrate north to their Mozambique breeding grounds from May to June and migrate to Antarctica to feed about now, said Vermeulen.

“Orcas seem to be coming more often than they used to, but also there are more eyes on the water and more social media [posts] reporting them,” she said.

Vermeulen said they hoped to collaborate with researchers in placing satellite tags onto killer whales for research, because they swam such huge distances that they were difficult to study.

“Their populations are generally stable,” she said, joking that “a dolphin” was outcompeting the great white sharks of False Bay.

A predatory pair of orcas, nicknamed Starboard and Port, have hunted and killed a number of great white sharks in False Bay.



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